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It is a worrying time to be a parent. We are told that we have an epidemic on our hands: an entire generation of young people who cannot cope with setbacks, failure or disappointment; who are entitled and over-sensitive; who embrace victimhood due to the bombardment they have suffered from social media and a lack of any ‘real’ hurdles to overcome.
As parents and teachers we are faced with a dilemma: do too little, and you’re neglectful; too much, and you’re creating another little ‘snowflake’. With endless discussion around the dangers of helicopter parenting, snowplough parenting and tiger-mom syndrome, parents face criticism from all corners, as well as struggling to balance the demands of work with their families.
It is very tempting to try and ‘fix’ others when you are a parent. You are, after all, the solver of problems and the voice of experience, the one who has always been able to kiss better any bumps and bruises, and sing away fear and sadness.
But giving our children the tools to enable them to look after and nurture their own mental health and wellbeing is key.
As your children develop, it is so much more powerful to ask, ‘How do you want to sort this out?’ than it is to always offer the solution. Try asking, ‘If you had a magic wand, what would be the outcome of this situation?’ And then talk through the lack of a magic wand and what might be a more realistic outcome.
It is also always worth asking the ‘Three Before Me’ question: which three things have you tried yourself before coming to an adult for help, and why do you think they haven’t worked? Such questioning encourages independent problem solving.
The great temptation for parents (and, in fact, teachers) is to remove pain, difficulty, embarrassment and failure from the paths of their children. None of us wants to see a child suffer, and so we wade in where we shouldn’t, framing all of their decisions with our own opinions and judgements, and stopping them from making mistakes in case they cause themselves distress. We become the fellow soldier in the trenches, losing the perspective we would have had if we’d maintained a more appropriate position of the general on the hill.
We all know that parents ringing the school when their child has been given a detention, or Whatsapping the parent of a school friend who is being mean, reinforce the belief that failure – large or small – is something to be avoided. So, talk openly about failure as a family, and role model it yourself: it’s no good being raised by an anxious perfectionist whilst being preached at about the importance of failure!
The ‘perfect mum’ mould we have created for ourselves where all mothers are expected to be successful at work, look amazing, bake the best cupcakes for the school fair and always have a beautiful home is creating as much anxiety in our young people as it is in us. Young people need to see you have a rubbish day, just as much as they need to experience for themselves doing poorly on tests, falling out with friends, being dumped or indeed romantically overlooked, so they can develop the tools which allow them to deal with disappointment, suffer for a time, and then get up again, ready to go.
Perspective is so important and it stands to reason you can’t develop it if the messages given suggest that small failures are too painful to be experienced. And – crucially – acknowledge that when things really do feel bad, and you can’t pick yourself up, you need and deserve the support of those around you. You can’t ‘fix’ a problem for a teenager, but you absolutely can help them think through how to fix it themselves.
The ‘perfect mum’ mould we have created for ourselves where all mothers are expected to be successful at work, look amazing, bake the best cupcakes for the school fair and always have a beautiful home is creating as much anxiety in our young people as it is in us
Children should be heard more and seen less. They are growing up in a climate in which the way that they look like is deemed much more important than what they say and believe, thanks to the incessant messaging of social media. We should be helping them to reverse that culture. Raising your voice – whether it’s in the flesh or online, politically or culturally – to talk about what is important is a tool for life. It also brings other tools into play – courage, confidence, the ability to articulate through emotion – and helps to develop a sense of owning your space in the world.
Really listen to your children, and look for opportunities for them to say what they think, in lots of different ways. Find a school which encourages a sense of independence and owning your space in the world, and show them through your example that standing up for what you believe in is incredibly important.
Children are growing up in a climate in which the way that they look like is deemed much more important than what they say and believe
Young people need to look outwards, as adolescence can be a particularly introspective phase of growing. Looking out into our communities, helping others, living alongside others, understanding that human beings are connected in a network (beyond online social networks), will help enormously when times get tough. Your children should be expected to look after younger siblings, elderly grandparents, family pets; and they also should be expected to offer something to the wider community.
Can you help at a soup kitchen together once a month; could you do a charity bike ride as a family, or commit to working in a charity shop on a Saturday morning? Looking out at the world in this way can only help build a sense of gratitude for their own blessings as well as a sense of responsibility for the well-being of others.
And we must laugh together too. To take oneself seriously whilst holding oneself lightly is the greatest of life skills. At our school, Wimbledon High School, we have a stand-up comedy night and a ‘resident comedian’ (self-appointed) who sends a weekly reflection on the school, unedited and uncensored. Keep some space for silliness; it is more important than you might think.
Can you help at a soup kitchen together once a month; could you do a charity bike ride as a family, or commit to working in a charity shop on a Saturday morning?
Finally, help your children to see the body as the amazing gift of strength and flexibility that it is. Help them to learn to fuel it with good food, to exercise to keep it strong – ideally under the sky, whenever possible – get it muddy and tired; and then get it to sleep. Get their screens (and yours!) out of the bedrooms by having a compulsory central charging place – ideally away from the bedrooms – which everyone plugs into an hour before bed.
I am convinced that the sleep deficit in this country is the number 1 reason we are struggling to maintain mental health. Help your children to fight the late night screen time urge and set rules for the whole community to abide by, explaining why they’re important. And get them to read Matthew Walker’s brilliant ‘Why we Sleep’ if they’re in any doubt. It worked for me.