I recently asked a 15 year old female if she thought she had a problem with her mental health. I was trying to understand if her anxiety was a response to the stress and pressure of her final school year or if there was something more deep rooted that needed attention. Her response was simply, 'I don't know'.
She knows she has feelings she doesn't recognise and physical responses to stress that she isn't comfortable with. She knows she is less comfortable than some of her friends and knows that lots of normal things feel a little abnormal to her - speaking to a shop assistant, going to a new place, getting a train alone all present a level of discomfort that may well indicate a mental health problem.
Although she knew she didn't feel right, she was unable to articulate what was wrong. Although she knew she wanted and needed something, she had no idea what that might be.
When words fail in this way, the only thing we can understand is behaviour and when I look at hers, I saw outbursts of anger, a blend of isolation and independence, and neediness and demand. She presented conflicting behaviours - ranging from almost a desperate need to be loved through to a complete rejection and dismissal of those who cared for her the most and though her behaviour could have easily been mistaken as that of a moody, selfish and ungrateful teenager, I suspected the reality was more that she was looking for someone to love her and not let her down.
As our conversation progressed, it became apparent that she had strong indicators of attachment disorder and an ongoing challenging relationship with her mother that made it difficult for her to manage and work through the emotions her insecure attachment presented.
As we worked through things and began to connect dots and provide the young lady with context and understanding of her thoughts, feelings and behaviours that often led to challenging, disruptive and undesirable behaviour, she was able to better communicate how she felt, why she felt that way and how she should be supported. It’s important to remember that although we are more aware of mental health, talk often about mental health and are working to create a society where mental health is considered proactively and equal to physical health, there are times when we simply can't communicate what is happening in our minds and what we need to support and improve it.
When words fail us, our primitive form of communication is our behaviour - and it is shaped and influenced directly by our environments, our mental well being and our need for love, security, attention, support and more. We assume we select our behaviour and are capable of communicating but when it comes to our mental health, cognitive diversity and neurological differences, neither of those assumptions are true.
If you'd like some help in understanding the behaviours of children and young people and what they might be trying to communicate then please do get in touch.