By Abigail Cukier
Watching television on Sept. 11, 2001, three-year-old Monica Swayze saw the World Trade Centre towers fall.
After that, she could hardly leave her mother’s side, even in their home, and she would not go outside after dark.
“She would ask, ‘Is a plane going to hit our house?’” said Monica’s mom, Tina.
Monica cried every single day of her kindergarten year because she did not want her mom to leave her at school.
“It was a fight to get her to leave the house. If someone was not at the door when she was ready to leave school, she would panic. She was not enjoying her childhood as she should have been.
“As time went on and it didn’t get any better, I said, ‘We have to do something.’”
When Tina talked to her family doctor, he said Monica would “get over it.”
One year later, Tina took her to a pediatrician who suggested she had an anxiety disorder and referred her to McMaster Children’s Hospital’s Chedoke site Child and Youth Mental Health Program.
When Monica was eight, she started cognitive behaviour therapy, which focuses on how your thoughts influence your feelings. The therapy provides strategies to change your thoughts and behaviour to help you function better. She started by going two times a week.
Tina also took a parents’ seminar to better understand anxiety and how to deal with it.
“They explained that in a certain situation, where my worry level might be at a level one, Monica’s would be 10 points ahead right away.
“If the teacher said, ‘No one wants to sit by you.’ I would think, ‘OK, that’s fine.’ Monica would be thinking, ‘Nobody likes me, I am terrible.’
“I found out that if we were in a movie theatre, Monica would be planning her exit in case something bad happened.”
Tina said the therapy made a huge difference for Monica, who is now 13, and she started seeing changes after a couple of months.
“We had to increase her exposure. Like we had to go to the mall and I had to walk away. Or at home, I had to go upstairs while she was downstairs.”
Last year, Monica went away overnight with her school and took a day trip this year to Niagara Falls. She is excited for high school next year. She is no longer in therapy, but uses the strategies she learned all of the time.
“It isn’t a case of you are just fixed. They said to expect backslides. And she is prepared to use what she has learned,” Tina said.
While Tina recognized that Monica needed help, it can be difficult for parents to see the signs of mental illness in their children and to know what to do.
Michelle Bates, a social worker with the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board who is co-ordinating the district mental health strategy, said there are many barriers for parents.
These include lack of experience with mental illness, the stigma, different understandings of what is “normal” behaviour for a child and recognizing when a behaviour is developmentally inappropriate.
“But parents have tremendous skills in having a good sense when something’s not quite right,” Bates said.
Signs that something might be wrong, include behaviour that is developmentally inappropriate for a child’s stage. For example, separation anxiety in a new kindergarten student is common, but may not be in a older child.
Other things to look for is how long the behaviour lasts and the impact it has on the child’s life.
Instead of writing off certain behaviours due to life stage or as just being a “bad” kid, Bates said to look deeper. Your irritable teenager might be suffering from depression.
Bates also says to not assume substance use is just a rite of passage. She says substance use is strongly linked to mental health issues.
If you do suspect that something needs attention, Bates said to take action quickly.
“The younger they start getting help, the better,” she said. “And don’t take no for an answer. I know my daughter. I know when something is wrong.
“It’s OK to ask for help. If you split your head open, would you not go to the doctor?”
Swayze has assured her daughter that there is nothing wrong with her. That she just thinks differently than other people.
“You feel like a failure at first. I am supposed to be the one who fixes the problem. I couldn’t. But then we did it together,” Swayze said. “She worked so hard at it.”
Parents can take steps to foster resilience in children
Michelle Bates, a social worker with the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, says one of the best ways parents can help children is to instill in them sense of resilience.
Resilience refers to an individual’s tendency to cope with stress. A resilient person is more easily able to “bounce back” from adversity.
Bates said parents need to let children experience disappointment and stressful situations, but without overwhelming them.
A child is more likely to become resilient if he/she:
• has at least one adult who loves and believes in him/her and provides consistent emotional support
• has a sense of belonging
• learns adaptability
• feels a sense of competence with everyday tasks, as well as special skills and interests
• sees an adult modeling healthy coping strategies