I saw something yesterday that really bothered me.
I could just let it be, move on, pretend it’s no big deal – but that doesn’t feel right. I need to write this. I really feel it’s the right thing to do.
So what did I see?
The video for the newly launched Headbomz campaign.
‘Headbomz’ has been launched by ISPCC (Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children) Childline in partnership with and funded by Vodafone Ireland Foundation. The video was created by award winning Aardman Animations (of the much less gory, Wallace + Gromit and Shaun the Sheep fame). If you haven’t seen it, I’ll post the link at the bottom of this article.
It is a campaign apparently aimed at children aged 8-10 years to let them know that ‘Talking Makes Us Stronger’. The subliminal message is that if they ‘talk about things, they will keep their head for longer’… otherwise it will explode.
Technically the video is really well made, no surprise there. The animations are powerful, graphic and seamless. The song is catchy and certainly delivers high impact and strong ‘ear-worm’ factor. It is going to be played on TV in Ireland and in cinemas, and in all primary schools, who will also have packs to give teachers ‘tips to help facilitate a FUN discussion with pupils‘. The packs are being sent to schools all over Ireland. And everything in me is screaming ‘no!’
So let me explain why I’m bothered. Let me explain a bit about myself.
After many years as a primary school teacher, over 12 years as a children’s play therapist, (often working with kids who CAMHS couldn’t reach) and more recently supporting primary schools who want a therapeutic approach to understanding their children, I specialize in working with children and adults who are still living with anxiety, chronic health conditions and other factors as a result of childhood trauma. I have a fare bit of knowledge and experience in the child-mental health field.
I know a few things about children with anxiety. I know from professional experience and because I have been there too following my own car crash several years ago. I know anxiety from the inside out, from the bottom up and not just the top down (not just head knowledge) like many professionals who know about it, talk about it, but haven’t yet really met it personally.
I know how those really worrying, anxious children will respond to this video.
It won’t be good.
Anxiety is a powerful, whole body experience. It feels like an overwhelming tidal wave of dis-empowerment. It affects heart, stomach, lungs and muscles all over our body, as well as our brain. It affects our nervous system, it affects our survival mechanisms, and it affects our voice too. When we are truly experiencing the power of anxiety it isolates us, shuts us down and makes it 500,000,000 times harder to connect to anyone else. I won’t get technical, but it is a powerful, visceral, experience and it can feel like your HEAD IS going to EXPLODE.
So why am I saying all this? Why am I taking the time to write this article?
Because the Headbomz campaign had a national launch recently, and was featured on the ISPCC Childline Facebook site, where the post (last time I looked) had 111 likes, hearts and laughs.
Am I the only person who is concerned? – Well, it would seem so, according to the people commenting, and those involved with making it. However, discussion in another Facebook group among other experienced children’s therapists encountered the following comments:-
-Wow- My first reaction- it’s absolutely horrific! Graphic, gross, sensationalist.
Can’t see myself using this and I cannot see how it could be helpful to children.
-I don’t like this at all!
-Also they are telling children that if they talk about it, will be fine. We all know that this is the hardest way for kids to express themselves so if they can’t talk about it, explosions will happen, not great for anxious kids.
-creepy! scary! hard to understand.
-It’s horrible. Aardman usually do fun stuff like Shaun the Sheep, don’t they? Gentle stuff, not horrific head explosions! No, Headbomz, this isn’t right.
-That is intense and painful to watch as a therapist.
-The message is very “in your face” and the volatile head explosions could be perceived as frightening.
-What concerns me most is that someone in a child mental health organisation signed it off.
There were no likes. No hearts. No laughs.
These comments may seem boring, harsh and poo-pooing, but I believe that, rather than ‘facebook rant’, they are all comments grounded in experience of working with children who have significant worries and need help to cope with life. These are all people who are spending their days working at the coal face of children’s mental health. People who know how powerful internalised feelings in children can be. People who are championing the cause and are USUALLY celebrating every time issues around children’s mental health are raised in the media…
ROLLING IT OUT
I have an image in my mind – of a class of 8-10 year olds being shown the video by a well meaning teacher – who is probably very grateful to have such a professionally produced resource to kick start the discussion around worries and anxiety and talking. I observe classes of children this age regularly and can picture it really clearly.
There will be many of the children who have (thankfully) not yet become intimately acquainted with significant worry or anxiety, who watch the cartoon at face value, enjoy the catchy tune and respond to the animation the way so many did on FB – by laughing.
And then there will be those other children, the silent sufferers. Those who are intricately harnessed to anxiety. Who have become so entwined with it they don’t know anymore what is them and what is anxiety… And who they would be if anxiety ever went away…
They know the reality of feeling sick, feeling hot and the horrible familiar tightness in their body as the pressure builds inside.
They will know that anxiety freaks them out, immobilizes them and …. is nothing they could EVER laugh about.
But the thing is now their peers are learning about worries and anxiety and they are all laughing. So what does that mean? It means that instead of feeling more able to talk about what happens with them (which incidentally ANY therapist will know is incredibly hard for ADULTS to do and near impossible for children until they feel really, really safe and secure with the person they are with) they will feel even more isolated. The sense of people not understanding them increases, and they are alone in their overwhelm again.
Those are the kids that I feel sick for when I watch the video.
A PLEA TO TEACHERS
IF you are a teacher handed this resource for your class. PLEASE consider the following, before you decide to show the video and make worries and anxiety a ‘light and fun experience’ – for everyone in the class apart from the kids it is meant to help.
- Children will only be able to acknowledge their own anxiety to people they feel VERY emotionally safe with. Occasionally this is a teacher, but more often it will not be. Don’t assume it is you.
- If you have leeway to talk about the video from an objective perspective with your class before they watch it, you will give your ones who don’t like it, more room to say so.
- In fact an anonymous vote after they watch it, (if they HAVE to watch it) will probably be your best bet to get as near to the truth about how it makes them feel when they are watching it, and whether they have ever experienced anything like this before.
- Be aware that if their peers laugh at graphic images of children experiencing strong emotions and significant anxiety, that will have a HUGE effect on them. If YOU LAUGH while you are watching the video with them, then their isolation seal is final. Not even the adult who they have to spend everyday with in school understands what it is really like for them being them.
- If you approach the whole topic with HUGE honesty and admit to your children if you have experienced this, then you have more chance of them coming with you. Acknowledge though that for each person the reason and exact experience of strong feelings and anxiety can be different. Please tell them – YOU DON’T KNOW EXACTLY WHAT IT FEELS LIKE IN THEIR SHOES, even if you have experienced it in your own.
- If you approach the topic with MIGHTY amounts of respect, empathy and acknowledge that you have never experienced this, then you can honour those kids who have (whether they acknowledge it in any way or not) with having gone through something in life that you haven’t – and in that way they will be your teacher.
Let me be clear. I am grateful for organisations like Childline who provide initial support for children who don’t know where else to turn. Childline is a chance for a brave child who feels they have no one else to speak to, to experience really being listened to, whether on the phone or online. Often just talking doesn’t change things for children, but being heard is ALWAYS a powerful positive experience.
I believe that the biggest universal impact of the benefit of Childline’s service is helping children BE noticed and BE HEARD. It is a real shame to me that, with the resources that went into this campaign, the video didn’t focus on this, rather than the excessive exploding heads. Surely an opportunity missed.
It also concerns me that with the wide-spread approach to raising awareness, younger children will be subjected to seeing this video on their TVs, computers and cinema trips. There will be some sensitive little ones out there who were fine before they saw it, but now…
Wouldn’t it be great, instead of sending fear based messages ‘talking makes us stronger – so if you can’t talk you must be really weak’ – or the simple counterpart (talk or else you head explodes) to send a positive message to children about ‘talking to people who really listen helps us feel better‘? No one would have nightmares about that… It might even encourage more calls to Childline.
I’m no graphics genius, but I can already imagine there could be some really powerful images to go with it too.
My concern is for all the children who are already inmates in the anxiety prison, convinced there is no way they could currently talk about things they are going through. I can only hope and pray that somehow they will not now also be burdened with seeing their peers and society laughing at internalised emotions and anxiety = laughing at them. They don’t need to fear more consequences for their body than they are already dealing with in silence.
My heart is exploding with concern for these children. I wrote this post for them. For these precious ones,
it’s not fun.
It’s not funny.
May we never disrespect children already suffering with mental health issues by suggesting it is.
If you haven’t seen it, but want to, here it is. Feel free to let me know what YOU think in the comments below. – SCROLL DOWN A LONG WAY!!
I have continued to receive messages from parents and children’s therapists and teachers working with children who have been affected by this video. What I feared is being played out. I have written a follow-on article to explain more about the impact this is having. You can read it here.