YOU worry you might have to share a room with your sister, she stays up all night and you wouldn’t get any sleep so you might fall asleep at school.
You worry when you get into your friend’s dad’s car and he drives really fast.
You’re upset because your dad had a heart attack and had to go to hospital and nobody explained it properly to you and he came home wearing slippers — and that felt strange because he usually wears runners or cowboy boots.
These are some of the real-life ‘down’ times experienced by eight to 12-year-olds in Sligo and included in Bouncing Away, the first mental health book in Ireland created by children for children. With the subtitle, The ups and downs of life and how to deal with them, the book was developed by 21 children – eight from HSE Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS), five from HSE Community Psychology Service (PCCC) and eight from a Sligo primary school.
Kids Own Publishing Partnership – which, according to its creative director Orla Kenny, raises the status of children’s creative work and voice through publishing — immediately took on the idea for such a book when artist Niamh O’Connor brought it to them. They secured HSE funding and got artist Vanya Lambrecht Ward and writer Lisa Vandegrift Davala on board. They worked alongside the children over a two-month period, focusing on building confidence, fostering self-esteem and developing alternative ways for the children to express themselves through art and storytelling.
The book has five sections: feelings and emotions; how doing different things can change how we feel; precious things and how they make us feel; and the children’s collective thoughts on “what helps you feel safe, happy and secure”. Its 40 pages are a precious repository of honest emotion and wisdom from children who haven’t yet left primary school.
Steve (all children’s names have been changed) wrote about being sad when his parents divorced. “My mum helped me through that time. If you talk about it, you let it all out, so that somebody else knows and understands.” Tony says, “When I feel angry, I stop smiling and become very quiet. Sometimes I feel angry and sad at the same time”. Sam says when he’s sad, he talks to his dad. And Kayla says: “Sometimes I feel really angry, like when my mum tells me what to do, and I bite my shirt sleeve rather than hitting.”
Lambrecht Ward says she was “quite blown away” by the children’s emotional intelligence. “They had a very good grasp of their emotions. They talked about how feelings are not always the one thing, they can be a combination of things...” Kenny was impressed at how the children work things out by doing. For example, Kate says she loves boxing because “it makes me happy”. Jimmy says “playing football helps me work with others and makes me happy”. Kayla says: “I feel better when I play with my Lego, when I read my books, when I play with my ball, when I play with my teddies.”
“The children talked about how they could change how they felt by doing different things. Interestingly, none of them talked about being inside playing video games,” says Kenny.
There were surprises too when it came to children’s most precious possessions — the ones that comforted most — says Dr Marian Duggan, senior psychologist at CAMHS in Sligo. “I was surprised at the significance of photos for many children. None mentioned technology or toys, unless simple stuffed animals. But they really treasured photos, like one of when their parents were still together prior to a separation. Or a photo of themselves with Granny before she died.”
One child wrote: “My most precious [photo] is one of my great grand-dad on my mum’s wedding day. There’s a picture next to it of me and it looks like I’m giving him a kiss on the cheek.”
Another child says: “Before my auntie went off to the army, she gave me this little glass love heart, to remember her until she comes back.”
Many children also cited their pets — cats, dogs and guinea pigs — as great mood-boosters. “Besides my family, my cat is the most special thing alive for me. He is black and white, and was a stray when we got him. If I’m bored I play with my cat’ (Kayla). A little boy, Isaac, says his lizard, Mr Munchers, is most precious to him: ‘I got him on my birthday. I like his skin because it’s colourful and his skin has lumps for protection — it looks like armour’.
Working with the children, Kenny noticed that many had worked out their own coping skills. She gives the example of Luke, who, when he feels angry, plays with Lego. ‘Some people say you should breathe slowly, but I breathe fast because it calms me down’.
- Psychologist Dr Marian Duggan says resilience is a fluid process that can be built upon throughout a child or adult’s life. She says inner strengths include self-control and self-regulation, positive outlook, confidence and reframing a situation or thought.
- Give positive attention and affection to help child feel loved, secure and accepted.
- Play with child. Be fully present –– no outside distractions (phones or technology). Play helps child to develop social skills and imagination.
- Listen with interest. Try to empathise even if you don’t agree with child’s perspective on the problem.
- Spend time explaining to child what the different emotions are and how to express them in a healthy way (e.g. you can tell your brother you’re annoyed with his behaviour but it’s not okay to hit him).
- Read child bedtime stories that encourage kindness and compassion towards others.
n Be a positive role model by taking care of your own health. Show understanding and compassion to your child so they can learn these traits.
- Be a strength-detector. Find and point out to child the good things about themselves. Be very specific.
- Teach child it’s normal in life to be corrected for unacceptable behaviour. “Children find it very difficult to receive feedback if they’re never corrected or shown boundaries,” says Duggan.