One in five New Zealanders is likely to be affected by anxiety and depression by the age of 18. The impact of the pandemic is set to see numbers escalate. Abby Beswick speaks to parents whose children are struggling with anxiety and to those making a positive difference to their lives.
Lesley Ranford didn’t know her baby wasn’t like other children.
Like all first-time mums, she was caught up in the magical and sleepless haze of her firstborn, a son called Lennox. The Napier mum felt exhausted and out of her depth but assumed that was just part of the job. It felt like Lennox cried nonstop for his first year, he struggled to sleep, had to be held constantly, didn’t register his mum’s voice and didn’t smile until he was five months old. “I thought that was my normal and I was the one that wasn’t coping,” she says.
It wasn’t until her midwife and Plunket nurse said there might be something else going on that Lesley and her husband Dean sought professional help.
Now 7, Lennox has been diagnosed as neurodiverse – suffering from severe anxiety, ADHD and sensory processing difficulties. They are labels more for other people, says Ranford. For them, it simply means there’s a lot more going on with Lennox and as a family, they are constantly problem-solving the unique challenges that come with their eldest son.
One of these has been biting. Lennox initially communicated by biting whoever was around him. “If he was frustrated, if he was angry, if he was happy, he bit,” says Ranford. This transitioned to constantly chewing his clothes and hands, which becomes increasingly aggressive the more anxious he’s feeling. They started using silicon necklaces for Lennox to chew but he was getting through one necklace a week, so they are now trialing chewing gum.
There have been other challenges. Lennox shies away from other children; preferring to watch rather than interact. He has an extreme fear of noise from others, but he makes a lot of noise. If he needs an escape, Lennox has earmuffs on hand in the car, house, at school and even in bed. Having a daily routine is important for making him feel secure and now that he has a large vocabulary, Lennox is able to express himself, which has helped hugely to ease his anxiety, says Ranford.
Since having her second and third sons, Quinn, 4, and Bentley, 2, Ranford has seen the “vast differences” from their brother. As babies, they slept, only cried occasionally, and were happy to be put down on the floor to play. Lennox has struggled to adjust to having siblings – a challenge the family still faces daily.
Moderate to severe anxiety disorders are the most common psychiatric illnesses affecting adults and children, according to Anxiety New Zealand. Feeling anxious to a degree is normal for everyone, as these emotions help us stay safe and adapt to our environment. However, when levels of anxiety become severe or ongoing, they can put our mental and physical health at risk, making daily life difficult. For children and adults suffering from anxiety, it can significantly impact work, school and relationships. Many people with anxiety also develop depression.
Helping children like Lennox was the motivation behind Hawke’s Bay business Sensory Haven 4 Kids. After several years supporting special needs children and as social workers in schools, former colleagues Angela Howlett and Lynair Bergman launched the online shop in August 2020. It sells a range of products designed to provide comfort and security for children and adults who suffer from anxiety and other sensory processing difficulties, at affordable prices.
During their careers, the women frequently saw teachers and families struggling to support children who had anxiety, ADHD, autism, trauma and other difficulties. “I was seeing children with behavioural issues and teachers didn’t know what they were or what was causing them,” says Bergman. “These kids didn’t know how to regulate their emotions and they were going through school being disruptive and undiagnosed. It caused them heaps of anxiety.” Affected children often became withdrawn, hypervigilant, or had angry outbursts, says Bergman.
From personal experience, the women knew how much relief sensory products could bring to these children and their families. However, after doing some research they found there were very few on the market and those available were expensive, putting them
out of reach for many families. During the first national lockdown last year, Howlett and Bergman came up with an idea to set up a business that had the potential to change these families’ lives. “We’re trying to make these products more available and create understanding about children so they get the help they deserve,” says Howlett.
There’s a vast range of items available on the website, from fidget tools to keep restless hands busy, to weighted items, sleep-support products, chewables, books, swings and calming sheets.
Among the top sellers are weighted toys that are tactile, have a deep calming effect and can be carried around to provide comfort, particularly when a child is in new situations. Compression sheets made out of lycra and cotton are also popular. They work like a tube, connected to the mattress, and provide a cozy place for the child to relax and unwind. Similar to this are the body socks made from lycra, with a hole for the head, that provide a fun, tactile experience. Swings and hammocks create a safe, relaxing space for children when they’re feeling anxious.
Howlett and Bergman sell the products online to the public, and they also supply schools, the DHB and Oranga Tamarki, so they can reach as many children as possible who need them. Since launch, business has been booming as more families than ever search for ways to support their anxious children. Since the pandemic they’ve noticed a growing wave of need. The women have both quit their day jobs to work on the business full-time, and connect with families who are struggling with anxiety.
Ranford “spent a fortune” sourcing and trying different sensory products before discovering Sensory Haven 4 Kids. Through them, she’s bought several items that have been hugely beneficial to Lennox, including weighted toys, fidgets, puzzles, sensory sock, apothecary sniff pots, stretch noodles and weighted lap pads. They have included several items in a sensory box Lennox keeps at school as a distraction when he’s feeling overwhelmed. “He loves all that stuff and it makes him feel so relaxed.”
To support other neurodiverse children and their parents, Ranford and her sister, who also has a neurodiverse child, started a lego group called Brick Buddies. The community-funded project is held at the Napier Family Centre once a fortnight and everyone is welcome. Products from Sensory Haven 4 Kids are available for families to trial at the sessions. The group has been a valuable place for families to connect and find support, says Ranford. “They understand where each other is coming from and the struggles. The kids just play with lego and we’ve seen some really cool moments of socialising.”
Having a child with anxiety or who is neurodiverse in any way, can be an isolating experience but you’re not alone. There are several resources available online, including guides for coping with Covid on the Anxiety New Zealand website.
Ranford urges parents to ask for help when you need it, to educate yourself about your child’s condition and to advocate for your child. “You know your child better than anyone else. If you see your kid is struggling, you don’t back down, and until you’ve got a plan you don’t leave that room.” There is light at the end of the tunnel for Lennox and the thousands of other Kiwi kids struggling with anxiety, they just need help to find it.
Anxiety: what you need to know
Hawke’s Bay psychologist Fran Collett specialises in working with children. She explains the causes of anxiety and how parents can support children who are suffering from it.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is the body‘s natural response to stress. When those feelings don’t go away, become extreme for the situation or you can’t control them, it makes it hard to cope with daily life.
There are a number of causes of anxiety. It can be hereditary, but nurture also plays a significant role, says Collett. One of the main triggers of anxiety in children is everyday instability. This can take many forms, such as a change in parents’ jobs, financial distress, changing houses or moving schools. This instability makes children feel like they have no control over their lives.
“Children are incredibly sensitive to the emotional tone in the family.” More chronic instability is caused by trauma such as neglect or domestic violence.
Signs of anxiety are varied and fall into three categories: physical, social and emotional. Physical signs are usually easy to see and these can be things such as chewing nails, pulling hair out, scratching skin on their body, complaining of tummy aches, sleep disturbance such as waking regularly, nightmares or night terrors or going backwards in toilet training. Behaviourally, children may also start collecting things as a way of controlling their environment.
Emotional changes are also quite easy to pick up on. Children with anxiety may become more gloomy and less playful. They worry more and ask more questions than usual. “It comes out as things like, ‘Mummy, will we have enough money for lunch tomorrow?’,” says Collett. There can also be wishful or magical thinking. “Children engage in magical and fantasy thinking all the time anyway, but in anxious children you’ll have that on steroids.” Children are simply using the best tools they have to cope, says Collett.
Socially, children with anxiety will do everything possible to be accepted and liked by their friendship group. They may become over involved in social groups, even to their own detriment. This gives them a sense of control over their friendships and of belonging, when there’s a sense of instability in the home, says Collett. Alternatively, children might disengage and become withdrawn. When you see your child disconnecting from the world, for example withdrawing from social activities, it’s an alarm bell.
How can parents help?
Provide security – The most important thing parents can do is make children feel secure, says Collett. “Parents and caregivers have to contain and control environments to create that sustained sense of security and stability.”
Connect – All children need connection. Get down to their level and talk to them in a way that shows you value them and what they have to say.
Actions speak louder than words – Especially for young children, the gesture of being with them speaks much louder than your words. Put down your phone and make time to be present with your children.
Normalise change – When there is a change in daily life children are always aware of it. Parents can play a big role in normalising the change and engaging in conversation with their children about what’s happening. Ask your children how they’re doing, what they’ve noticed that’s different and whether you can do anything to help? If they’re engaged in meaningful ways this helps them manage the change, says Collett.
Knowledge is power – In these uncertain times it can be hard to know how much information to tell your children. Collett advocates empowering your children with age-appropriate knowledge to help them understand what is happening. There are several free resources online to help children understand the pandemic.
Breathe – Doing controlled breathing exercises together are a powerful way to support anxious children. This regulates the nervous system and improves mindfulness. Cosmic kids yoga is another fun option that brings children into their bodies and helps to relieve stress.
Get help – Parents know their children best. If you’re concerned, seek professional help. Therapy is there to support and empower families.