Jonathan Wood: Keep kids in the loop when things go wrong

File picture: Esme AllenFile picture: Esme Allen
File picture: Esme Allen
FAMILY relationships can be strained if children don't know why something is happening to a loved one, writes Jonathan Wood

EVER since she was born, Sandra’s mother had spent periods of time away from home. These would come out of the blue and without explanation. “Mum’s away for a little while,” she was told, and an aunt or a grandmother would arrive, and life would continue, with her dad going to work and Sandra going to nursery or school.

At seven years old, Sandra appeared to be a well-cared for, friendly child, but her teachers reported that there were times that she became very anxious and insecure, she fell out with her friends in an angry way, and as Place2Be staff got to know her, it was clear that she was always watching – hyper-vigilant – for any change in her environment. This could be a harsh word, or a favourite teacher being off sick, or a friend ignoring her – relatively small incidents but they caused Sandra to become very demanding and difficult in school.

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Sandra’s mother had suffered with serious depressive illness ever since Sandra’s birth. Unrecognised post-natal depression lay at the root of subsequent depressive episodes, increasing in severity as the years passed. Occasionally she was hospitalised. Otherwise there was an agreement in the family that she would go and stay with her brother when things got too bad at home.

None of this was explained to Sandra because the family thought she was too young to understand. Sandra’s mother told us this when she came into school to agree to Sandra having one-to-one counselling with Place2Be. As part of that, we arranged a series of “parent partnership” meetings with the mum to help her look at her relationship with Sandra. It was clear that the unexplained disappearances lay at the heart of Sandra’s insecurities.

Place2Be’s whole school approach to mental health recognises the early onset of problems arising out of the child’s environment – familial and parental relationships as well school dynamics. Both parents and children report a very positive impact on their family relationships and their mental health by engaging with this kind of intervention at the right time.

Sandra’s sessions with her Place2Be counsellor ran in parallel with her mum’s meetings at the school. When her mum felt able to explain her problems with depression to her daughter, the real breakthrough occurred. Sandra was able to explain that every time her mum had gone away, she thought she had gone for good – and that it was all her fault. Her relief that it was “just” an illness was the first step on the road to a revitalised and more secure bond between them.

Mental Health Awareness Week was a chance to reflect on the importance of nurturing good relationships for our wellbeing.

• Jonathan Wood is national manager for Scotland with Place2Be