Children with learning differences are some of the bravest children I know. They show grit, resilience and a level of persistence that some of us would only dream of. Overlapping the category of children with learning differences are children with high sensitivities and high anxiety. They too blow me away with their inner strength and courage.
So let me share some stories of children living bravely.
Archie was nine years old when he came to me. Due to a combination of ADHD and Dyslexia he found himself in year 4 reading and writing at the age of a 6 year old. He was so embarrassed about the standard of his writing that his anxiety in this area had developed into OCD symptoms.
A voice in his head would constantly tell him to touch things three times, or only eat certain foods. Despite what would be crippling obstacles for many of us, Archie got up every day and went to school and sat in the classroom trying his best at what he could do. Many adults in Archie’s life could only see the down side of his work and his behaviour. Questions would be asked: why can’t he just get his homework done? Why can’t he sit still for longer? Why does he have to be disruptive by talking all the time?
I saw Archie from a different perspective. I would advocate for Archie and say,
imagine sitting in a room for 5 hours where everything happening in that room is incredibly difficult for you.
Now imagine doing this not once, not twice, but day after day, month after month and term after term. I would tell the staff and Archie’s parents that I was amazed that Archie got up in the morning and made it to school. I believed we should celebrate the fact that he turned up! And, not only did he turn up but he tried his best. Like the song popular back in 2011: Archie got knocked down and he got up again – each and every day.
That, for me, is living bravely.
Poppy came to me with an OCD condition that meant everything (that is everything) she touched, she would have to touch 5 times. So if she touched her sandwich for lunch she would have to tap it 5 times. If her knee accidentally banged her desk she would then have to touch the desk 5 times with her knee.
As you can imagine this was a condition that Poppy did not want her class mates to know about. So, not only did she have a voice in her head telling her to do rather bizarre things – she then had to spend a huge amount of energy trying to hide this from her friends.
Anyone that has worked with children with anxiety-based conditions and OCD will know there is no quick fix. It is a slow process of building the child’s inner voice up to develop control over the voice that does not seem to be in the child’s best interest. For a child to stand strong and stand up to that all-consuming powerful voice in the head that says – touch this 5 times – takes amazing bravery. But this is what poppy did. Slowly, and with growing confidence, Poppy started to take back control of her mind and stand up to the voice in her head.
Poppy was 7 years old at the time.
Poppy lived bravely.
If you have ever witnessed a child trying to stand up to the negative voice in their head and find the grit to cope with the uncomfortable physical and emotional sensations that come with this – you will understand that this is living bravely indeed.
Sam came to me because he had tummy pains – and there was no medical reason for them. The doctor believed he had anxiety. Many parents will know that for young children (and old adults!) the stomach is one of the first places we can sense our anxiety. The more difficult process is to find out why a young child might have anxiety-based tummy pains, as often young children are unsure themselves what they’re anxious about.
After some playful based therapy, I found the reason for Sam’s tummy pains. He was being bullied at school. Like many cases of bullying it was not the stereotypical physical or name calling bullying – it was the insidious silent treatment.
A group of children, with a leader of course, was making Sam’s life a misery at school. They would purposely exclude him from playing with them at morning tea and lunch time. They would invite each other on play dates in front of him – and never invite Sam. If he tried to talk to them they would turn their heads or walk away. All of this was done away from the eyes of teachers and parents. Understandably, Sam became withdrawn and reluctant to go to school.
But he still did go to school.
Like Archie in the earlier story, even though the obstacles were stacked against him, Sam turned up.
Sam was six and a half years old.
Sam was taught strategies for dealing with bullying and he moved through processes to help him live an anxiety-free childhood. Teachers worked in a collaborative way to decrease bullying from the school.
I can still see little Sam’s face when he came to me for his first visit. And I still think about how Sam felt so miserable, felt so lonely and felt so anxious at school – due to the bullying – yet somehow, from somewhere, he found an inner strength to stay in the classroom and not run out of the door.
Sam lived bravely.
And many children live bravely in these almost hidden ways every day of every year. Many children find the school day incredibly difficult – perhaps because they have a learning difference, perhaps because they have anxiety, perhaps because they have no food in their belly or a myriad of other reasons. Yet they stick it out. Many give it their best shot. Many smile and you would never know the inner strength they are showing just by being there.
And, I for one, celebrate these brave wee people!