Children’s book explores anxiety; author says it is being experienced by a growing number of children
For Canadian Mental Health Week, we talk with PEI author Jackie MacKay on her book Butterflies in My Belly, and what she sees as a growing number of cases of childhood anxiety.
Jackie MacKay is a therapist who works with Richmond Centre Mental Health Clinic in Charlottetown. With her Master’s Degree in Social Work from Sir Wilfred Laurier University, she worked for 24 years as a therapist with Catholic Family Services in Charlottetown, specializing in children’s play therapy for ten years of that work. It was during this time that she wrote Butterflies in My Belly – a children’s therapy book on anxiety. Illustrated by Brenda Whiteway, the book is published by Acorn Press with funding contribution from the Catholic Family Services Bureau.
What sparked the idea to write Butterflies in My Belly?
I was working a lot with children at Catholic Family Services in Charlottetown, and I was noticing that I was seeing so many young children suffering with anxiety. The idea for the book came to me in that work, and the writing for it flowed, because, it’s just what I was seeing everyday. I wanted it to be not a clinical book, although there are some clinical tidbits in there, but more just a fun story.
What kinds of things were you seeing everyday?
I was finding that even the little kids – Grade 2, 3, 4 – were suffering anxiety. But my take on it was that the grownups were kind of dismissing it, wondering what they could have to be anxious about. When actually, when you think about it from a child’s perspective, they change teachers every year, they often change classmates every year; and we as adults get in our routines of the same office, having the same boss, we’re not changing every year. Just because they’re littler than us doesn’t mean that their anxiety levels are any different. I was talking a lot to parents about the fact that if you just try to normalize this for the child, it’s likely to be less of a demon in their lives.
Why do think so many young children seem to be suffering with anxiety?
We see a lot of over-scheduled kids, and we’ve made them like mini adults. It’s supposed to be a time of creative play and freedom, and I think we’re losing out on imaginative play. One or two activities is not bad, but sometimes it goes too far. We’ve taken the problem solving away from them. There’s just so much intervention from grownups. We’ve given them a lot of tools for adulthood, like cell phones and computers and so on, but then we’ve taken away and overprotected them in other ways. We’ve taken the rough and tumble out of it and sanitized childhood.
Do you have plans for writing more on this topic?
Some of my friends and coworkers were joking saying that I should have a series with the main character in Butterflies in My Belly. I toyed with that idea. But, at the moment, I’m thinking about a grief book. That’s born out of a personal tragedy – we lost our son to cancer. Writing the book is still a way’s off, as I heal, but since I lost Ben, I’ve been searching for good books on this topic – and there are some – but there’s not much on sibling loss, for example. It’s a stretch to find grief books for kids. So, that’s more at the forefront of my mind these days.
What kinds of resources exist, particularly here in Atlantic Canada, for those seeking help for childhood anxiety?
Canadian Mental Health Association is a good resource. And on PEI, there’s Richmond Centre, and Catholic Family Services Bureau is non-denominational and is very innovative in the play-therapy model. And for the parent and therapist I would recommend books by Violet Oaklander (Windows to Our Children), Michael Ungar and Mark Barnes’ The Healing Path With Children.
Do you have any words of advice for someone coping with childhood anxiety – either themselves, or in their family?
Find someone to talk to – either a professional with training in cognitive behaviour therapy or a trusted adult – because anxiety, of all the mental health conditions, is one of the most treatable. So the younger the dialogue starts, and the younger the person gets coping strategies and tools, the better their chance of overcoming it.