Guest Post: Because Children Get Broken Too

OCD and anxiety disorders run strong in our family, like the non-magical un-sexy version of The Force. Not all of us have been afflicted in the same way, or with the same severity. To our (completely un-trained, un-expert) eyes, a lot seems to depend on circumstance. Physical illness or overwhelming stress can push the continuous background anxiety that we all seem to have – fear of setting a foot wrong, or failing to please others, for example – into something altogether more destructive.

Guest Post Because Children Get Broken Too

Right now, I am having to watch my eight-year-old daughter, J, go through hell: health issues from four months of age, combined with the death of her father last year, have resulted in high levels of anxiety and extreme behaviour. Her hands bleed from constant washing – one of many OCD rituals; she thinks about death and worries about illness; she struggles to go asleep and stay asleep. There are plenty of other symptoms: severe enough, you’d have thought, for us to get some treatment quickly. And yet…

Professional support for my daughter through my husband’s illness and death has been virtually non-existent, and mental health services have proved to be ridiculously hard to access.

When I first approached the local health visitors, I was told to try sleep training. But I’d done this before (several times) and I knew it wasn’t the solution to J’s increasing levels of anxiety. I kept banging on doors and eventually got a referral to CAMHS (the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services). My first contact with them was a phone call: the woman I spoke to suggested a book that might help (A Bag Full of Worries) and then recommended – yet again! – sleep training. The conversation lasted ten minutes, but she said she’d call back in a few weeks. She never did.

Over the next few months, my husband got sicker, and J got more and more distraught. She was often up for hours in the middle of the night. The pressure of trying to care for them both (and my son, last in line for attention) left me tearing my hair out. By this point, I’d been asking for help for around eight months. Eventually a sympathetic GP sent us to a child psychiatrist, who saw J once, then referred her to talk therapy; we went the private route because the wait on the overstretched NHS was just too long. Unfortunately the therapy didn’t achieve much – the counsellor tried, but she wasn’t an OCD specialist, and she just couldn’t get through the barriers J had put up. I got another referral to CAMHS, but this time I didn’t even get a phone call.

My husband died in May 2015. We were offered access to an in-house bereavement service, run by the hospice where he spent his last weeks. This consisted of monthly group meetings, plus less frequent, half-hour, 1-to-1 sessions. Better than nothing in theory: but J hated the group sessions. The person running them seemed hell-bent on making my little girl “face her pain”, without teaching much in the way of strategies to help her cope with it. Finally, after another trip to a new GP (in a different borough), we were referred again to CAMHS.

Maybe the third time is the charm – because we’ve now met a much more sympathetic doctor at our local CAMHS, who really seems to understand OCD and J’s underlying anxiety. Two months on, we’re still on the waiting list for CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy). But after three years of trying to get help for J, I think we’re finally getting to the beginning of the end.

Atiny fraction of the vast number of self-help books I've read.

Atiny fraction of the vast number of self-help books I’ve read.

In the meantime, I’ve read a plethora of books on children’s behaviour and parenting. I stumbled on Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting by Noel Janis Norton, who – as well as being a parenting coach – knows a lot about dealing with children who have extreme temperaments. The strategies she teaches have definitely helped to calm the household down, but there is still a lot of work to be done.

It’s been a difficult road to get to the point where J’s problems are being taken seriously; trying to get people to listen – to properly listen – is exhausting. Access to services seems so dependent on which particular health visitor, social worker, GP or consultant you talk to…or on where you live. And it turns out that there are many superb bereavement groups out there. But when my husband died, nobody told us about them. We had to go looking for that information ourselves.

Is there a better way? While the NHS is known to be stretched for resources when it comes to mental health, it wasn’t like we were ignored. In fact, we saw lots of different people. Too frequently, however, the person we saw dismissed the problem, offered only generic advice, didn’t have the specific expertise to help, or didn’t use techniques that were effective with J. Clearly, awareness of OCD and anxiety disorders in children needs to be seriously improved, and there should be more consideration of how to adapt techniques that work for adults to make them more suitable for treating children. I also wonder whether more support could be given to parents so they are enabled to help their children themselves? It’s unrealistic to think that parents can become CBT experts. But a couple of days of formal instruction in OCD and periodic access to an expert would have made a huge difference.

In the meantime, my family and I are doing what we can: caring for my daughter and each other, getting through each day, hoping things will get better with time.


About the author of this post: Katharine and Elizabeth Corr are sisters and best friends. They both studied history at university and went to work in London for a bit. Then they stopped working to raise families, because somehow they missed the memo explaining that children are far more demanding than clients or bosses. When they both decided to write novels – on account of fictional people being much easier to deal with than real ones – it was obvious they should do it together. Their debut YA fantasy novel, THE WITCH’S KISS, is out now from HarperCollins.

Links: Website | Katherine Twitter | Elizabeth Twitter

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6 thoughts on “Guest Post: Because Children Get Broken Too

  1. Hearing about what little J goes through… was so hard for me to hear.
    I may not have the same symptoms as J and not the same expirience, but I was about her age when my anxiety and panic attacks started. Through your eyes, I can see what my single parnet mom went through. She was alone and had to take care of two little girls, one of whom could not sleep at night because she suffered from nausea and vomiting and various other symptoms each and every night.
    I know J’s pain. I experienced it. I was just a little girl and I had no idea what was happening to me. Why I was like that.
    Despite the fact that my anxiety was on a level that needed immediate help, it was only a year ago that I started taking SSRI pills and only now that I’m starting CBT.
    My heart breaks for J. No girl her age should go through something like that. She needs to live, not merely exist. She needs to be happy, not constantly terrified. But that’s how she was born.
    I so hope you’ll find something that will help J cope. It may not seem like much but please tell her she is not alone and that she can fight through it.

  2. Reading this makes me so sad. I took had anxiety and OCD when I was a child, thankfully I’m able to manage them now so it’s gotten a bit better for me. What I remember from that time is children don’t often know what they’re feeling, they can’t understand it enough to put it in to words, which in turn increases anxiety. I hope you find something that works for J, and I wish you and your family all the best!

  3. I’ve been through PTSD as an adult so know what severe anxiety is like and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.
    It must be so hard when you have a child going through anxiety because they are so young and much less able to express what they’re feeling. I wish this family all the best.
    Thank you so much for doing this week on your blog and for sharing this post in particular as people definitely need to be more aware of how anxiety is something children can, and do, suffer from.

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  6. Thank you for sharing something so very personal and yet so important to talk about. My husband has inherited OCD and anxiety from the maternal side of his family, and now our concern is it being passed to our daughters. Our eldest in particular (5 years old) already displays many similar personality traits to her dad, and we are determined to help her deal with the anxiety before it becomes an issue. For me it is a never-ending battle against my husband’s demons, as I call them, and a happy, stable family life.

    I am seeing more and more evidence that people need assistance with mental health issues, and there is no direct line of contact for qualified, experienced supporters. We are left to stumble around in the dark, desperately searching for something to help us understand and manage our conditions, or in my case, the conditions of those we love.

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