It has been a difficult journey for our family ever since returning from vacation in the States over Chinese New Year. Our trip home was great and time truly flew by. Yet as great as our trip was, there are times that we question if we should have even gone home at all.
The night before we were supposed to fly out Bear made himself physically sick with anxiety about returning home. Then upon actually returning to China his behavior and demeanor changed completely. It was as if he was losing his spirit. He refused to eat and barely ate anything for an entire two weeks. He would scream and break down at anything or for seemingly nothing. He spent a lot of time hiding under his bed. He has always been highly sensitive to change and any change positive or negative stresses him out. There were several points where as a parent, I knew if things didn’t change quickly then we were going to be looking at hospitalization and in more trouble than we already were in regards to Bear’s health. It is heart wrenching watching your child spiral down a downward path and feeling like there is nothing you can do to help him.
After a lot of research and reading online we discovered that the trip back caused Bear to experience a downward spiral into a major depression. Once we put words to what is going on with Bear we could work to figure out how to best help Bear out.
We first tried to contact SOS International – a health organization tailored to expats. In our little neck of the woods, our community is only able to support a small clinic serviced by doctors on a rotating basis. So if you need anything serious done or major help, you have to go to the SOS in Beijing. I tried to make an appointment with a psychologist there but they responded that the doctor was completely booked with patients and we could try and get on a waiting list. Next we tried to get Bear seen at the clinic here and have the doctor here push through a recommendation. Even though the doctor agreed to push Bear though to a specialist, it never panned out. You would think when a mother of a three year old has asked for help multiple times – someone would listen or help.
Next I contacted the United Family Health Care in Tianjin. They had a psychologist who was finally willing to meet with us only after I explained our situation.
While we were waiting on professional help, we worked really hard on trying to have good moments and good experiences for Bear. Maybe it was special pool time with dad or getting to run an errand with me. We took time to celebrate little wins and little victories of happiness in his upside-down world. Little by little, day by day, Bear started to come out of his depression.
The day that Bear and I met the doctor, Bear was actually doing pretty well and on an up swing. The doctor asked us if we played with Bear – which of course we do, but instead of helping facilitate play to take a step back and listen to his play. Other than that the doctor said he showed no signs of anxiety while we were there – which didn’t help much, but he gave me his cell phone number so that I could text him when something was up with Bear.
The next day at home I sat next to Bear and just listened. I was completely taken back by what I heard. Everything he played with, be it cars, his castle, his pirate ship, rearranging blankets in our bedroom in a house, or rearranging the couch cushions for play, shared the central theme of house. I knew he played house with the blankets and couch, but it didn’t resonate with me until I sat down and counted how many times we had played house in an afternoon. A sense of home is obviously extremely important to Bear yet somewhere and somehow we have failed in keeping his world safe and secure to him. And as I reread the previous sentence all I can think of is ‘well duh we moved to China!’
I don’t think living here is home to Bear. This whole ordeal has been heartbreaking, but to realize that Bear doesn’t truly feel like this is home is eye opening. So then comes the question – how do we make this place home for Bear? How are our actions and words reflecting in his attitude to living here? (which is an immensely important question as living here is challenging for all of us!)
We are still working on the answers. One thing in which every professional (pediatrician, SOS clinic doctor, and psychiatrist) we talked to recommended was putting Bear in kindergarten/preschool. Unfortunately this has proven more challenging than ever. We keep having set backs out of our control and it has been frustrating trying to get Bear into school. This school we picked is the perfect fit for him which is why we have not enrolled him in another school. Fingers crossed and prayers that things get worked out soon! Bear is actually looking forward to school and cannot wait to go.
The reason why I wanted to share this with you is that it was completely eye opening having a child with depression. We did not understand what Bear was going through was depression until we were desperate, trying to find help for him. Depression is diagnosed in 2% of toddlers and is unfortunately on the rise. Unfortunately there is not a lot of research out there yet. I have a couple of books on the way that explore the topics of expatriate living and the struggles that children face in an expatriate situation as well as a couple of books on childhood depression, and a book for siblings that help explain what depression is and why it looks like we are treating their brother differently.
Transitions and life changes may always be a struggle for Bear, but we as his parents are more prepared to help him through these changes. Yes, we still question whether or not we should visit home this summer or how he is going to be when he actually gets to start school, but we will try to make each new change as positive as possible. We are very aware that something can trigger another depression in Bear, but next time we will be more prepared to help him.