There are some images have been floating around Facebook that I think we all need to see — especially if we will ever end up working with children or youth, either as a parent, a teacher, or a medical professional:
Let me add a story of my own: starting in the the fourth grade, I would complain weekly about my stomach hurting and not wanting to go to school. I was fortunate that I was a ‘gifted’ child — and also known to be extremely responsible/conscientious/’good’ for my age — and so no one accused me of being lazy. They still didn’t believe, though, that I could possibly be sick that often. Their explanation was that I was ‘so smart’ that everything bored me, and I dreaded going to school so much that my brain actually ‘convinced’ my stomach that it hurt. My mother’s solution was for me to skip fifth grade; I refused, and we eventually compromised on me only skipping ‘some’ of fifth grade (I tested out of a few subjects and was placed in the sixth grade versions of them instead).
Fast forward 4 years. I became extremely ill, lost 20 pounds off an already athletic and lean frame, and started showing signs of a GI bleed. 2 months later (the long wait is attributed to the poor/inaccessible medical care in my area, and it would have been much worse if not for my family’s solid financial situation) I was diagnosed with a major, lifelong medical condition. The severity of symptoms tend to fluctuate with time, but, for many people, this condition is disabling.
“It’s funny,” my mom said concerning my condition a few months later. She was telling my family members the story, in an animated way, as if it was, in fact, funny. “She always complained of stomach problems! I guess it was a real thing.”
I guess it was a real thing.
This post is not a rant about my family or how they handle/talk about my medical condition. If you want to read about my mother’s comment about accommodations and ‘being entitled,’ feel free to check out my post: If You Are Entitled, You Aren’t ‘Being’ Entitled.
Instead, I want to talk about how important it is for us — as adults — to realize that it is possible for kids to have valid opinions about their bodies, health, and mental health at whatever ‘tender’ age they might be.
As adults, we — and I will always say ‘we’ no matter much we think we’re aren’t part of the problem — tend dismiss young people’s emotions and thoughts as inherently meaningless, dramatic, or deceitful. For example, when a child melts down in a store, we are so quick to think that that child is being a brat. We fail to consider the possibility that they are tired, hungry, frustrated, and unable to communicate effectively due to the fact that they are a child. We fail to consider that such an emotional response is a normal part of growing up, considering that children are still learning the skills they need to regulate their emotions.
We don’t see their reaction as something that is understandable (even if it is undesirable). Instead, we see that child as doing a ‘bad’ thing. Our knee-jerk reaction is to get mad and scold the child — a negative reaction which, in part, stems from the fact that we don’t believe that child’s distress is valid. If we thought it was valid, we’d probably instead give them a chance to breathe, calm down, and then show them a more appropriate way to express their feelings.
This belief that a child’s distress is not valid continues as they grow older. Even though adolescence is when many mental health conditions begin to manifest, tweens and teens who admit to having psychological distress or other troubling feelings are often dismissed by the adults in their lives. Sometimes, they’re told they are being dramatic; sometimes, they’re told they are faking it. Either way, they’re faking it.
Sometimes, the feelings are believed to be real but still dismissed as irrelevant — after all, their life isn’t that bad, so they just need to learn to deal with negative emotions like the rest of us.
If a young person is diagnosed with a mental health condition, some people even use that diagnosis as an excuse to further dismiss their feelings. A bipolar teen is mad? They just forgot to take their meds, of course! This sort of dismissal transcends all ages, of course. For teenagers in particular, however, you don’t even need a diagnosis to have this logic used against you. I have seen countless upset, distressed, and frustrated teens told that they are only acting ‘that way’ because of their hormone-ravaged brains.
(Hey, XXers — sound familiar? We’re just on our periods, right?)
If it seems like I’m getting off topic in mentioning adult females and adults with mental illnesses, I’m not. Notice the similarities between how we disenfranchise various groups of people and how we treat young people. Throughout history — and today — we use invalidation to try and make different groups of people shut up. Black individuals who speak out against harassment, racism, or discrimination are just ‘ranting,’ implying that their anger, frustration, or even calm objections are misplaced and they are just acting out of a babyish or bratty need to complain/be the center of attention/play the victim. Women who are genuinely upset are told they are just ‘on their periods.’ Men who show emotions aren’t really men. And so on.
That’s an awful thing to do to another human being. And here’s the thing – if it’s not right to do to adults, it’s not right to do to children.
We use the phrase ‘a tender age’ to talk about someone who is unusually young or apparently inexperienced for whatever role or situation they are involved in. I went to college at the tender age of 16, for example, or a young boy had to learn to care for his siblings at the tender age of 12. However, when it comes to our emotions and how our bodies are feeling, there is no such thing as ‘a tender age.’ You don’t need experience to know how your body feels.
When a child is distressed, they know something isn’t right. Maybe they don’t know how to express it yet — and maybe they need help learning how to calm down and use their words — but the actual feeling of distress is not invalid.
When a tween is depressed, they know that the dread, hopelessness, and sorrow they feel isn’t normal. Maybe it makes them irritable. Maybe their executive functioning hasn’t fully developed and so they do irrational things. Maybe they ruminate — after all, it’s a known part of depression — and always end up circling back to things that make them sadder. But the feelings they have are not meaningless, and they are not doing it ‘on purpose.’ They don’t need dismissal; they need help.*
When a young person complains of bodily pain, they are genuinely worried that something is wrong. Maybe it is nothing. Maybe it’s something psychosomatic, which (despite how people often like to use the term) is different than ‘making it up’ and still needs to be addressed because they ARE actually feeling what they say they feel. And maybe it’s life-threatening or life-altering.
Either way, it’s valid.
We need to listen to our children, whatever ‘tender’ age they might be. They do not magically become people when they turn 18; they are people all along, acting in the capacity in which they can act, explaining their feelings, emotions, and worries in the best way they possibly can. All that’s missing from this equation are adults in their lives who are willing to sit down and listen.
And we need to listen. Sure, there is no such thing as a ‘tender age’ for knowing how our bodies and emotions feels, but there is certainly a tender age for our first experiences of dehumanization and invalidation. As someone who hopes to one day work with kids in a medical setting, I must do everything I can to ensure I’m not contributing to the problem. However, it will take a group effort — teachers, parents, mentors, soccer coaches, neighbors, and more.
We need to listen to our children. Because, if not us, then whom?
*Do some people with mental health problems (and those without them) seek attention? Of course! But does that really mean the pain isn’t real or that they are less deserving of help? Of course not! I’ve got two half-written blog posts on this situation; I’ll link them here eventually.