A vitally important subject which was really emphasised to me by an e-mail I received earlier this week (more of that later).
The mental health of our children is vitally important and whilst we’re all clearly aware of this, it can be easy to forget it during day-to-day life. I’ll refer to our children as kids for the rest of this post, primarily as, for me at least, the word ‘children’ mainly conjures up thoughts of primary-school age children, whereas this post also applies to secondary school age kids. This frequent forgetfulness and failure to consider this as often as we should isn’t helped by the fact that most kids are seemingly predetermined to mask any mental health issues they may have, potentially as this is a desperately difficult subject to address, or they may not want to hold a conversation which they feel may upset or worry their parents. However, mental health in children is a significant issue these days. The Mental Health Foundation reports the following stats:
- 10% of children and young people (aged 5-16 years) have a clinically diagnosable mental health problem, yet 70% of children and adolescents who experience mental health problems have not had appropriate interventions at a sufficiently early age.
- 20% of adolescents may experience a mental health problem in any given year.
- 50% of mental health problems are established by age 14 and 75% by age 24.
Those stats are alarming. You can read more here, should you wish to.
As the parent of a soon-to-be 14-year old, I know how difficult it is to a) address this, and b) always consider my daughter’s mental health. Additionally, Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdown scenario for much of this year to date really hasn’t helped. At a basic level, I know my daughter is missing school (to a degree) and is certainly missing daily, face-to-face interaction with her friends. I also know she has spells of being bored and wants to return to some degree of normality. I’ve discussed this with my wife and close friends and we’re all in agreement that it’s a very delicate balancing act; that we need to ensure our children get through this situation as best they can, hopefully with no or little detriment to their mental health, but also whilst not completely ditching the positive and healthier aspects of life, such as basic human interaction, exercise, healthy eating, getting away from a screen for an hour or two each day, and suchlike. So far, things haven’t been too bad in our household. There has been the odd disagreement or harsh word here and then but nothing major and, by-and-large, I’m pretty confident my daughter is doing well. Yes, she’s glued to her phone for most of the day, but we do get out for walks, eat together, talk together, watch the odd TV programme together, and, perhaps most importantly, laugh together. But then, earlier this week, I read a blog post from the brilliant Gretchen Rubin (I recommend signing up to her A Little Happier e-mails) which completely altered my way of thinking. In that post, Gretchen recalls a conversation with a friend, addressing a family incident in her life. The details are copied below:
A friend told me about a small incident in her life, and I find myself reflecting on it.
She has two sons, and her younger son has special needs, so each morning, she spent more time helping him get situated for his classroom, and her older son didn’t need as much support. Every day, shortly before lunchtime, she’d text her older son and say something like, “Getting hungry? In the mood for anything in particular for lunch?” Then she’d fix lunch so it would be ready when her sons got “out of class.” She just fell into that habit, as school was happening at home, and didn’t think anything of it.
Then one day she pulled a muscle in her back, and she was in agony. It was almost impossible to move, she was struggling to do the most minor tasks. She hardly thought about her sons’ lunches, and when she did, she figured, “He’s old enough, he can figure something out.”
Well, he was furious when he got out of class and when his lunch wasn’t ready. He was so angry that she hadn’t asked him about it and hadn’t prepared anything.
And I think I would’ve understood if my friend has been furious with her son. I can imagine thinking, “Gosh, is he that spoiled, or that lazy, or that unsympathetic, that he can’t do a little thing like fix some peanut-butter sandwiches one day?”
“How did you react?” I asked.
She’s a lot wiser than I am. She said, “Oh, I understood the feeling. Sometimes we rely on these little thoughtful gestures; they make us feel taken care of. I hadn’t really put any thought into what I was doing—it just happened—so I didn’t realize how important it was to him. Once I realized, then I was a lot more careful about it.”
And I realized how true this was. Sometimes, these tiny, loving gestures, built up over time, that we count on and even taken for granted, are what make us feel most loved.
This story really (and I mean really!) struck a chord with me. I know for certain that, if that situation occurred in our house, I would fly off the handle and accuse my daughter of being selfish, spoiled and lazy. However, as I’ve written about in previous posts, just stepping back from a situation and taking a few seconds to consider the bigger picture, particularly the viewpoints of others involved, can be really beneficial. That is certainly the case in this story and a reframing of the situation puts a completely different perspective on things. That consideration for the importance of / reliance on thoughtful little gestures that seem ridiculously insignificant but actually mean a lot is a game-changer for me and is certainly something I’ll try to consider from now on.
Another useful resource I’ve recently found is a book recommendation from a work colleague. ‘Get Out of My Life…But First Take Me & Alex Into Town. The bestselling parent’s guide to the new teenager.’, by Tony Wolf & Suzanne Franks, is another real eye-opener. A really easy read, it’s made me revisit and reconsider how I felt as a teenager for the first time in nigh-on 30-years and apply that thinking to our current home-life. It’s helping a lot and is making me view what could be potentially difficult situations at times in a completely different way. It doesn’t offer a set of teenage parenting rules as such, though it instead explains why teenagers do what they do. In terms of the mental health of everyone in our household, but particularly my daughter, I’d like to think it’s changed how I react to everyday scenarios and is therefore having a positive effect.
So, to conclude, it is obvious that the mental health of our kids is of paramount importance (perhaps the most important area to consider in our lives) though it certainly isn’t straightforward to address. When we’re prompted, it’s easier to consider this more and think about just what we need to do to make life easier for our kids. However, during day-to-day life, when we’re ridiculously busy, trying to set boundaries whilst not being complete soft-touches, and occasionally getting caught up in spontaneous heated discussions, it’s easy to momentarily forget this. The stepping back from a situation, taking a few seconds to think, and then hopefully responding accordingly, is working for me. Not all the time – that would surely be impossible? – but it works more often than not. I’m trying to consider my daughter’s viewpoint more. I’m trying to let her get on with life as best she can at the moment whilst subtly trying to get her away from her phone-screen at certain points in the day. I’m trying to ensure our household is a loving, caring and empathetic one which will allow us all to be in positive state-of-mind as often as possible. It isn’t easy, it doesn’t always work, but the least I can do is try…
As always, thanks for reading and take care.