Roots of mental health are in our childhood
A DAD'S LIFE:She worries about growing up and responsibilities, writes ADAM BROPHY
WE’RE PREPARING for another birthday. The kid doesn’t know what to do with herself, the excitement’s getting so big.
“How old will you be?” asks a friend’s mother.
“Eleven,” says the elder.
“You’re gonna be eleven-teen. That’s brilliant. It’s a fabulous age. You’ll have so much fun.”
“I know. Thanks,” says the elder, but she’s gone quiet.
That night, I’m tucking her in. The usual ritual, that which cannot be deviated from, for any bending of the system may result in the creatures under the bed curling their greasy tendrils upwards. The creatures must be kept in their box. This requires the story to be read, assurances to be made, hugs to be administered, all in a particular order. Routine is crucial.
I can’t rush it. This is what has killed me over the years. No matter what I’m trying to get to, hooking up with friends, a deadline to be met, a Champions League game paused, this process cannot be rushed. Of all things, this procedure has, over a decade, caused me the most anguish and produced the most Zen-like results. I don’t push it anymore.
There have been too many blow-ups, too many nights where one or both kids can’t get the head down, where for the sake of five minutes of attention at lights out, bedtime has dragged on for hours.
Routine is crucial, and at this stage it’s become as important to me as it is to them. On this particular night, the elder keeps me in the hug for a little longer than usual.
“I won’t be eleven-teen,” she whispers, “I’ll be 11.”
“You’ll be 11, don’t worry. I hear you. There’s no rush.”
Some of them sprint down the path to growing up. They can’t wait. This one can. This one notices every little change, mental and physical, and needs to talk about it. Already my Zen abilities are being challenged but the last thing I can do is get impatient here. Get gruff now and I won’t lose her for a night, I’ll lose her until she’s 21.
She has this notion of teenhood as if it’s a pre-adult wasteland. She watches the gangs of secondary school kids roam the streets and kick ball in the town square.
I see a bunch of boys and girls look cripplingly uncomfortable on either side of an unmarked divide, wondering how to behave for themselves and with each other. She sees near grown-ups, sophisticated and assured, and wonders how she’ll ever make the step up to being that person.
She hears “teenager” and, for some reason, she thinks she has to manage for herself. She thinks of strange creatures who bear little relevance to either the adults or children who inhabit our house.
I’m sure there are many parents of teens out there who will agree with her assessment, but she doesn’t want to become that creature yet.
So, she worries, about growing up, and responsibilities, and not being taken care of.
That worries me. Not because I don’t think she’ll be able to cope with the hurricane of physical changes and emotional dilemmas inevitable over the next few years. She will. There will be problems, I will climb the walls I’m sure, but she’ll be okay.
My worry stems from this concern of hers, because in that is the change already happening. It’s at 10 or 11 that they become aware of their own anxieties. She has already expressed disappointment that she doesn’t feel the same unreserved joy at small things, like heading to the beach, that her younger sister does. She assesses things now. She misses the blind rush. Again, all a normal part of growing up. But I know, from personal experience, that these worries are the seeds of future anxieties and potential depression.
It’s easy to encourage the normalisation of taking care of your mental health among adults. That aspect of self-care is becoming more accepted, if still not totally understood. But the fact is that the roots of mental health are firmly stuck in childhood experiences, and particularly in how we deal with key changes.
She’s on the cusp of one now. I want her to keep talking about how she’s experiencing it. My natural inclination is to tell her to get on with it, enjoy it, stop fretting. That approach, no doubt, will push her away.
If my patience has been tested by bedtimes in recent years, I can’t imagine how the next 10 will pan out.
Ah look, I’ll mess it up whatever I do, I just have to presume she’ll forgive me in the end. Isn’t that what all our parents did?