Mental Health, Parenting

Using Your Child’s Passion to Engage them in Their Mental Health Recovery

AKA ‘Let what is inside you leak out. And I mean that metaphorically – please don’t stab people.’

“Hi, Mum.  I’m not doing so good.”
“No?  What’s up, Hon?”
“I’m feeling really anxious.”
“Where on a scale of ‘Hobbit in his hole’ to ‘Smaug thinking all this treasure has been stolen’ is your anxiety?”
“Dwarves invading Bilbo’s hole.”
“Sooo… coping on the outside, but running around on the inside making sure they’re not destroying your furniture and eating everything in the larder?”
“Yeah… did you know that in the book Bilbo invites them to dinner and….”

Scaling is a technique that anyone who has been to a mental health professional or writhed in pain in an emergency department will be familiar with.  ‘Where on a scale of 1 – 10 would you place your pain/panic/anger?’ It’s a way of taking an abstract concept and placing it on a continuum to give it meaning and track changes.  It also gives ownership and agency to the person in distress.

Using your child's passion to engage them in their mental health recovery

The conversation above was a spur of the moment way to ease my daughter into discussing her anxiety while keeping it light yet descriptive.  And it worked.  After using her Hobbit anxiety scale for a week or two I realised it had become an invaluable tool for us.  Finally we had a known scale to communicate an abstract concept with. One that she could embrace and not roll her eyes at as she sometimes does with the professionally made scales and flash cards used in counselling.  These often come off as either too generic, sappy or childish.  Now we could use fantasy and metaphor to describe the very real feelings that weigh her down every day.

“Hi, Hon”
“Hey Mum”
“I’m just calling to check how my little hobbit is doing.”
“Bilbo left his hanky at home.”
“So, feeling anxious about everything ahead and trying to find any excuse to go home where it is safe?”

By the time second term of year nine rolled around, my daughter had barely been to school all year.  I’d say it was fair to say that she had done about 7 classes in total outside of the first day of school.  And it was not because she didn’t want to be there.  God knows she tried her hardest to get there every day.  And she made amazing progress with her anxiety disorder on the cruise holiday we went on.  But the first day of school for term two that year wasn’t exactly a good day for us.  I’d go so far as to say that life put her in a Vulcan Death Grip and gave her an overacted Shatner-esque death scene that morning .  (On a side note, I am unsure what is worse, Spock being pissed off at you or having to watch Shatner act).

So back to her doctor and psychologist we went to try and get things under control.

Part of her therapy that day was trying to imagine her anxiety as a monster.  She drew her clawing, black, tentacled monster with her alongside it in a superhero cape ready to do battle.  Her side kick was a cat in its own cape.

Not surprising for a girl who lives in a world full of fanfic, Avengers, wizards, MI5 agents and Hobbits.  The things she is passionate about naturally colour her real world.

Outside of therapy, we worked on a predefined scale she could visualise her anxiety on.  She wrote the scale then I drew it up and had it printed as a poster for her room so she would always have a reminder; she now didn’t need to stress about remembering or creating in the midst of her panic.  And we never need to get back on this carousel:

“How bad is it?”
“I don’t know.”
“Imagine it is a scale of 1 – 10”
“I don’t know.”

Pin Me to Share the Love

Sound familiar?  We had been going around on the same carousel for about six months before my daughter and I found our way to step off of that spiraling roundabout of pointlessness.  After all that time I had begun to navigate our situation by blending my training and experience as a youth worker with my love and knowledge as a parent.

As a parent, I wanted to do everything I could to work within the parameters given to me by trained professionals.  My fear and desperation to keep my daughter safe had blinded me to the fact I had skills and knowledge of my own to bring to the table which were every bit as valuable.

Skills as a youth worker and knowledge of the things that my daughter was passionate about as a parent.

About 18 months previously I had been participating in a train the trainer course for the anger management course RAGE.  Drawing heavily, in fact, I’d go so far as to say exclusively, on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, it used scaling as its central theme.  The majority of participants worked with teens as the course was primarily designed to deal with.  However, one woman worked with 5 – 8-year-olds.  We got talking during a participatory exercise, she was concerned with her charges being unable to rationalise their anger on to an abstract number scale.  I suggested replacing the numbers with superheroes instead.  One being Bruce Banner, two being Ironman, all the way up to ten being The Hulk.  Her face lit up with excitement with this simple change, she knew the children she cared for would be able to identify the intensity of their anger far better with this change to the scale.

So today I would say this to you.  You know yourself and your children better than anyone else.  Find the thing that helps them connect with their anxiety.  To define it and understand it.  And run with that.  It doesn’t matter if it falls into the predefined categories or standardised boxes that professionals have already created to manage the disorder you’re fighting together.  Take the framework that they have laid out for you and give it the twist it needs to engage your child.  Life is to be lived and loved, the battle does not have to be a long dark tunnel.  Take your child’s passion and bring light and colour to the tunnel you’re in.

My daughter has given me permission to share her scale with you and provide a printable version for your own anxious geeklings.  She hopes it helps.


Hobbit Anxiety Scale. Click to print.
Click for a printable PDF of our Hobbit Anxiety Scale

I’d love to hear how you’ve fared using this yourself or the individual flair you’ve brought to supporting your own child.