The mental health of our children is an increasing worry, as highlighted in a recent BBC article ‘Children with problems or problem children?‘. With more and more children being diagnosed with conditions requiring treatment, resources to support them are becoming overstretched. Many of these children are behaviourally challenging and disruptive at school. Despite their best efforts, many schools feel they have reached the point where their behaviours are impacting other pupils so significantly that they feel no alternative but to exclude them. For individual teachers, hitting challenging academic targets while trying to meet increasing pastoral care needs, is a huge and stressful task.
At Jamie’s Farm I continually hear children tell me that they feel safe here. This is worrying. It is the right of every child to feel safe in their home environment, everyday. What is going on in their lives that renders them feeling afraid, anxious, ready to bolt in flight, retaliate in fight, or switch off and freeze?
For many of the children who come to Jamie’s Farm, multiple reasons seem to be colliding. Some of these young people tell us that they feel afraid at home because their parents are stressed, worrying about money, arguing, sometimes drinking, sometimes fighting. Some children live in inner-city areas where they are afraid to go to the shops, leave their flats, socialise, or even walk to school. Their streets are governed by gangs and threats abound. Some children are frightened at school, frightened of academic failure, of being bullied, of being rejected by their peer groups. Any one or combination of these issues can lead to high anxiety levels which manifest in mental health issues.
Boys find it particularly hard to self-sooth or talk about their worries and are more likely to externalise these feelings, landing them in fights, arguments, or simply refusing to cooperate. They quickly get labelled as trouble makers, but should they instead be thought of as troubled? Girls are more likely to internalise their worries and the signs we see may be self-harming, eating disorders, withdrawal. Their behaviour is an indication that they are struggling. If we don’t intervene, these children begin to define themselves by their problem behaviour. This definition can easily and unconsciously be adopted by their parents and teachers. Rather than being seen as drowning, they are seen as attention seeking or just plain bad.
When we started Jamie’s Farm, we had the simple idea of providing an alternative experience for children who were growing up with deprivation or extreme stress which was preventing them from thriving. We wanted to offer them a chance to experience the peace and beauty of the countryside, the benefits of hard work with meaningful jobs, the chance to reflect and share their inner thoughts and feelings, a chance to build trust in themselves and others. We hoped that they would have a freedom from stress, the chance to play and be children, to connect with their authentic selves. Little did we know how quickly they would want to reinvent themselves as ‘good’ and generous, caring people. We saw this as them reconnecting with their essential good natures. Time after time children visiting the farm demonstrate that they yearn to be good, to feel good, that deep down all children are good.
We cannot always change a child’s circumstances, but we can change their conception of themselves as good or bad. We can allow them to reinstate hope. We can develop resilience and positivity alongside compassion. Maybe they are not problem children, but doing their best to survive and tackle their problems.
Written by Tish Feilden, Lead Therapist and Co-Founder.