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“I Just Got Scared:” Lessons from My 5-year-old During Mental Health Awareness Month

Updated: May 6

I read recently that Mental Health Awareness Month has been recognized in the United States since 1949 – 75 years! I don’t know about you, but I was surprised. Have we really been “aware” of our mental health for that long? I know when I was growing up, we didn’t discuss it; not in school, not at home, not even with friends. I navigated mental health challenges, sure, but I certainly didn’t feel safe or comfortable telling folks about it. 

 

Flash forward to something that happened in my household 2 weeks ago: My son Theodore had just turned 5, and was scheduled for an hour-long visit to the kindergarten classroom where he will be enrolled next year. For days before the visit, we talked about it, hyped it up, and got all excited about kindergarten life. When the big day came, we arrived at the school with a dozen other children in line, anxious parents waving and straightening collars and whispering words of encouragement. And Theodore, my typically confident, outgoing guy, could not make himself step into the classroom. He froze in place, terrified, and burst into tears. Despite my attempts at comfort and reassurance, we ended up turning around and going home that day.  

 

But what struck me about this incident was what happened when we got home. In my maternal heartbreak and desperation to “fix” my son’s feelings, I said, “Want a snack? Want to play Legos? Want to read a book? Want a hug?” To which my tiny little 5-year-old child, after carefully putting his shoes away, turned to me, the most serious and pensive look on his face, and said, “Actually, I’m going to go in the room. I just need some time alone.” I was shook. I responded, my mind reeling, “Uhhh, okay. If that’s what you need, I’ll leave you alone and come check on you in a little bit.” About 5 minutes later, he found me puttering in the kitchen and came over for a squeeze.  

 

Our conversation went like this. 

Theodore: “I just got scared. What if the homework in kindergarten is too hard for me?” 

Me: “I feel you. New things can be really scary. And yeah, the homework might be hard. The teachers and Mama will be there to help you though.” 

Theodore: “Are you mad that I didn’t go inside like a big boy?” 

Me: “No. I thought you were very brave to try.” 

Theodore: “Okay, I’m ready to play Legos now.” 

 

I was so impressed by my son’s ability to name his feelings, express his needs, set a clear boundary, and return for co-regulation when he was ready. He is years ahead of where I was at his age . . . probably even ahead of where I am now. And I want to be clear that Theodore is not a genius, wiser, or more advanced than other 5-year-olds in his generation. I also want to be clear that this is not always his reaction when something is challenging for him (we still have lots of tantrums!). But I do think there is a difference when we as a society, and as families, talk about our feelings more now than we did when I was growing up. At home, Theodore's older siblings talk about mental health as part of their holistic wellbeing. We try our best to be open about our struggles and the tools we use to heal and recover. And it’s helping. It's a step in the right direction to de-stigmatize and normalize conversations about mental health. It’s part of what will empower Theodore and his generation to reach out for help and to lean on the community when one day they need it. It’s what will allow Theodore to be there for someone else who is navigating a challenge. And while it may not be the only solution/change that's needed, it makes me feel hopeful for the future.

 

So, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Mental Health Awareness Month in the U.S., let’s take a cue from Theodore and continue working to normalize conversations about mental health and our emotions. Because in doing so, in creating safe spaces for nonjudgmental listening and community-building, we could actually save lives.

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