It has been said that children born in this millennium, the so called "Generation Z", are the unhappiest generation yet; fraught with anxieties, low levels of life satisfaction and a far higher incidence of diagnosed mental health problems than their parents or grandparents. Whilst it is very possible that much of this results from raised awareness of these issues causing more to get picked up than ever before, as a parent it's worrying.
Before coronavirus, I was worried about the pressures on our children. Growing up in a world where a little device in your pocket bombards you constantly with news that is beyond understanding, advertising and the opinions of others is sure to have an impact. Bullying can now take place 24/7 and follow you to your bedroom, companies who benefit financially from lowering your self esteem can send subtle messages through targeted adverts daily, and the pressures of growing up, school and family life are all still there as they were 30 years ago. Covid-19 has created a wealth of new anxieties, what effect will a pandemic during the formative years have upon our children?
With the best will in the world, we have limited control on much of the above. Like it or not, the kids of today will have to learn to navigate these waters, and as parents it is our role to provide them with the tools to do that. With that in mind, I've put together a list of ways we can promote positive mental health and self care in our children, and with any luck help them learn the tools to cope with whatever this ever-changing world might throw at them.
In thinking about this topic, I reached out to our amazing Facebook group Small Eco Families, so a big thank you to those who shared their experiences, thoughts and ideas. We hope they will help you and your families - feel free to add your thoughts in the comments.
1) Talk about Stress and Negative Feelings
We all suffer stress, and knowing how to deal with it in a healthy way is vital. When feeling stress, it's fine to acknowledge this to your child and talk about it in an age-appropriate way. As they grow, they will themselves experience stress, and other not so positive emotions. Being able to name the feelings and know it's ok to share that and seek help can only be a good thing.
We love the book recommended by one of our group members, "The Colour Monster", wherein a little girl helps a confused monster make sense of and understand all his jumbled up feelings
2) Practice Self-Care Yourself
How do you deal with stress? Do you do yoga, have a hot bath and read a book, or do you drink a bottle of wine and get into arguments with strangers on Facebook? If you're not managing stress well, not only are you leaving yourself at risk of deteriorating mental health, but your children are also likely to be learning these habits.
3) Share Your Feelings With Your Children; Encourage them when they show theirs
It is easy to fall into the trap of believing that we need to pretend we are perfect for our children - we plaster on a smile even if we feel awful, we hide anger and we pretend life is perfect. Doing so may feel like it is protecting them, but it doesn't teach them much about emotional intelligence or how to deal with their own feelings.
Children do need us to be their rock in life and provide a stable base, but that doesn't mean we can't share some of our "messier" feelings with them too. If we feel angry, we can express that in words without unleashing the anger upon them. If something makes us sad, or we are tired and stressed out, we can tell our children that in a way that doesn't cause them to also feel sadness or stress. And as our children grow, they know they can come to you with their "messy" feelings, because they know you understand.
We talk about "big feelings" a lot in this house; toddlers have a lot of big feelings. Anger, frustration, fear, delight, excitement and sadness can be overwhelmingly intense, and that's normal. If a child is exhibiting physical signs of extreme emotion, labelling that can be so helpful, and can help them learn to tell you with their words rather than their actions in future. When they do share emotions, even negative ones, an understanding response can make all the difference in helping them to come to terms with the situation that is triggering the emotion.
4) Cultivate Good Friendships; Teach Being a Good Friend
They say it takes a village to raise a child, but the need for wider support doesn't stop as we reach adulthood. We all need friends. Particularly when you're a parent, having an external source of support besides family is vital, and friends who lift you up, encourage and support you are worth their weight in gold. As your children go through their school years, the ups and downs of friendship and interpersonal relationships are relentless. Modelling good, healthy friendships for your children not only benefits your mental health, but it will help your children do the same.
As with the above, when children bring their friendship problems to you, try to take time to hear them. It hurts when friends say "you're not my friend anymore", and it hurts again when you try and share that and are told it doesn't matter.
5) Healthy Body; Healthy Mind: Talk abut the links between the two
We all know that eating nutritious, healthy food and taking regular exercise help us to maintain the best possible physical health and a strong immune system. We don't always make the link between these things and good mental health, but it's just as important. So many of us reach for the biscuit tin when we're stressed out, when a walk in the fresh air would actually make us feel a lot better. By making better choices a normal and routine part of your life, you'll set up healthy habits for the future in your child.
6) Listen to what's important to your children
Its hard being a parent; we juggle lots of things and have so much to do and think about all the time. And kids can talk, a lot, and about the most inane and random things (and at the most inopportune times). But their thoughts, feelings and opinions matter as much as anyone else's, and in talking to you they are trying to share and create a connection. You may not always be able to sit and have a long conversation about the world, their favourite tv show or something they have found, but you can acknowledge them with kindness and enthusiasm, even if that's all you can do in that moment.
As they grow, they will share less, and there will come a time when you wish they would tell you more and that you'll worry about what they aren't sharing. Regardless of how you parent, this is a natural part of growing up and developing independence from your parents. But, if a child has learned from a young age that their parents diminish, reject or ignore their attempts to connect, why would they keep opening themselves up to that?
It isn't easy, and there is no perfect or right way to parent. And no matter how hard we try to foster a positive and happy home for our children, events that are out of our control will play a huge part in our children's mental health. Not least of these is genetics - some people will suffer from poor mental health regardless. As parents, the biggest thing we can do to help our children's mental health is to keep learning about it, keep talking about it and keep working on ourselves. A key predictor of a child's future happiness and mental health is that of their parents - they will copy you more than they will listen to you.
I'd love to hear more of your thoughts in the comments - in the run up to World Mental Health Day on 10th October 2020, we want to raise the profile of mental health, why it matters and what we can do to help ourselves and those around us.