I have written before about my son Oliver’s battle with anxiety and my attempts to help him. Recently I had a chat with someone (we’ll call him Jim), about the conversations I have been having with my son.
Jim made a few points, some of which I agreed with, some of which I didn’t.
Jim’s argument was that I am ‘too soft’ on Oliver and need to make him face his fears more often than I am doing. This might be true actually. I hate seeing him tortured by his anxiety and will try wherever possible to avoid situations that I know will distress him. While I don’t agree with the behaviour therapy ‘flooding’ technique of immersing someone in the experience they fear the most to help them deal with it, I do agree that I could do more to expose Oliver to short situations that I know he can get through (eg him staying in the car so I can nip into the shop). I’ll be mindful to work on this. Point taken Jim.
Jim also said that in telling Oliver he has anxiety I am only reinforcing his feelings and making him more aware of it. Again, there could be some truth in this. I help Oliver to understand his feelings by explaining that his anxiety sometimes gets the better of him and distorts his thoughts and decisions. I say this to try to help him make sense of what he knows to be irrational fears but I do see that in telling him this, I am also reinforcing the label somewhat. Again, I am already being more careful not to throw the A word out there when I don’t need to.
However, I draw the line at ignoring the issue completely and telling my son that he should just ‘man up’ and get on with a life that terrifies him at times. And here’s why.
- It’s widely recognised that repressed emotion over a sustained period of time is detrimental to both emotional and physical health. Worry and stress can increase the risk factors which lead to heart attacks and strokes and a lack of communication is a key factor in many relationship breakdowns both between spouses and other family members. We aren’t psychic and often, the things that go unsaid are more corrosive to a relationship than a conversation could be. I want Oliver to have healthy relationships as he grows and a good understanding of his own physical and mental health so that he is able to be proactive in terms of staying healthy and address any issues early.
- I’m sure I am not the only person who has ever been guilty of over thinking. Often the thoughts go around and around in your mind and a solution proves elusive. In the meantime, we create additional worries on top of the original ones and before you know it, the way we view the world has become skewed and unrealistic. But here’s the weird thing. Often, just telling someone else your problems helps you to figure out the solution on your own. I’m not suggesting that counselling is the answer for everyone but it doesn’t even need to be that formal. Recently my partner was worrying about an issue. He didn’t want to tell me but I was aware something was going on by his expressions and body language. Naturally this made me worry anyway. When I was eventually able to encourage him to speak to me about it he worked out the solution as he was describing the problem! There is something very powerful about HEARING the words opposed to THINKING them and though I know it’s not that easy with more established mental health issues, maybe if more people spoke at the start of their journey they would find the answers, and ultimately the peace, they crave a bit sooner. If I can be Oliver’s sounding board, or if he has the confidence to confide in someone else, then it just might nip anything potentially sinister in the bud.
During our chat, Jim hit me with the oldie but goodie of “anxiety didn’t exist in my day. My father just told me to get on with it and man up. Didn’t do me any harm”
What I said to Jim “I get that but times have changed”.
What I said in my head “Yes but you’re a bitter divorcee with two failed marriages and a son who doesn’t like you much so I don’t think their advice got you very far. Forgive me if I don’t jot down your parenting tips Jim!”
- This only confirms what I believe, that our own parenting style is massively influenced by the way we were raised. That can be a great thing, sometimes it isn’t! So much of the way we parent is influenced by our own upbringing. Whether copying something or avoiding a pattern. How many times have you heard yourself say something and thought “Oh God I’m turning into my mum / dad?” The fact is that in this day and age there is a great deal of (often conflicting) pressure on men to be sensitive yet strong, modern yet have the traits of the 1920s gentleman, a model and ever-present father yet an earner for the family, to be a problem solver without problems of their own etc! It might have been appropriate to ‘just deal with it’ a few generations ago (I doubt it) but there is much more to ‘deal with’ nowadays and people just aren’t equipped to do that in silence. Passing the baton of ‘man up’ through the generations only creates a perpetual cycle of repression and denial.
- My mum would say to me through the turbulent teenage years “I can’t help if I don’t know”. Hearing her words and believing that she might actually be able to help to free me from the anguish at that time was such a relief. It was the warm cosy blanket of support around the cold weary frame of worry. Mum always helped me find some clarity amongst the frenetic thoughts but as I’ve mentioned, a lot of the time I think I came to the answers on my own simply through discussing the issue. The more accurate phrase should probably be “I can’t facilitate you finding your own way through these problems and giving you the cognitive skills to become more resilient if you don’t discuss them with me” but the other version is a bit catchier! It’s one that I will use with my own children if and when I need to although so far (*touch wood*) Oliver talks freely and openly with me anyway.
- I’ve left the most important reason why I’m not telling my son to man up to the end because all of the reasons before it are contributing factors. Suicide. The Samaritans report, published this year for 2013-2015 states that men are 3 times more likely to commit suicide than women. There are of course a lot of factors which contributed this statistic but “Perhaps the most interesting (and worrying) finding is that while on average more women are diagnosed with common mental health problems than men, the rate of male suicide is significantly higher.” Women are talking. Men are suffering in silence. Fact. And I will do everything I can to ensure that my son isn’t one of those as he grows up.
While I do agree that there comes a time to face your fears and feel the satisfaction of overcoming them, this isn’t the same as ‘manning up’ and just ‘dealing with it’. That’s called burying your head in the sand and quite frankly, when that happens, all that people see is an arse (*Coughs. Jim*)
For as long as I am around I will be encouraging Oliver to chat with me about his day, his hopes and fears and he will know that he can come to me any time about anything at all. I can’t guarantee him safe passage through the sea of life ahead but I can make damn sure that he’s water tight for the journey. “Better out than in” I say when it comes to emotions. Not cheese though. It’s never true for cheese!