The World Health Organisation believes that depression will become the number one cause of the global disease burden by 2030. Mental health is a growing concern globally. As parents, we are expecting our children to change the world but we aren’t giving them the tools they need to make this happen. Days like World Mental Health Day shine a spotlight on awareness. Bell’s Let’s Talk has us talking about it. We need to also do something, but parents are given a mixed message about what this is.
Give them space, but don’t let them spend too much time alone.
They need friends to flourish but the wrong friends can cause social stress and anxiety.
Are you pushing too hard? Or maybe you aren’t pushing enough?
If you advocate are you a helicopter? If you don’t help them are you negligent?
How much technology is too much? Is not enough possible?
Did watching 13 Reasons Why cause this funk your daughter is in?
Is she eating enough? If you ask her about her eating will it cause an eating disorder?
Is he gay? Maybe he wants to use “they”. If ask ask will I make it worse?
When I heard Lynn Lyons, anxiety expert say “anxiety- if your child has it, it’s your fault. If it was nature- you. If it was nurture- also you” it helped. I have one child with autism, one with hypothyroid, one with Crohn’s disease and one with dyslexia. I come from a family who don’t historically manage anxiety and stress well. I don’t need to know the why; the genetics, the environment, the things that happen in life outside my control. I need to know how to best help my children be confident, kind, and curious.
My best advice to other moms trying to navigate parenting without a GPS, figure out what you want them to be then get out of their way and let them while keeping in mind:
- Connection Matters– No not internet connection. Although your teens will claim that internet connectivity is the most important type of connectivity actual human connection is one key to mental wellness. With teens, friendships can become all encompassing. I like the advice of child psychologist and parenting expert Gordon Neufeld who reminds us“ Absolutely missing in peer relationships are unconditional love and acceptance, the desire to nurture, the ability to extend oneself for the sake of the other, the willingness to sacrifice for the growth and development of the other.” Children need to have an adult mentor in their lives who they feel unconditionally attached to. Parents can help curate these relationships with people who model the values, work ethic, and lifestyle they want for their children.
- Kids Need a Purpose Too– Gone are the days where “because I said so” was a reasonable answer. We all need to feel that we matter; that our lives have meaning. Kids too! They want to know why they need to learn math, how science will help them become a soccer star, and how eating too much sugar affects their bodies. They need to understand their value as a person. And if they develop a passion, they need space to follow it (even if playing a viseo game or making YouTube videos seems like wasting time to you). As Patrick Cook-Deegan at The Greater Good Science Center said “Teens are naturally driven to seek new experiences—and that may be the key to helping them develop a sense of purpose in life.”
- Let Them Be Themselves– For teens, figuring out who they are is confusing. They thought the liked certain clothes and hairstyles and music and food but then they started to realize that they liked these because their families were pleased when they looked a certain way, ate certain things, or behaved a certain way. In order to test out what they really like they need to put a little distance between themselves and their parents. According to Dr. Shefali Tsabary, author of The Conscious Parent, “Dysfunctional teenagers don’t emerge overnight. They are the result of years of subjugated authenticity and false promises. They have been dying a slow death and now have to fight a daily battle just to feel alive. No teen wants to be “bad.” They simply don’t know any other way to be. The child who grows up to be a defiant teen does so because of a lack of authenticity, a lack of containment, or a lack of connection to the parents—or a combination of these.”
- Show Don’t Tell– You want gratitude, model gratitude. You want happy children, work on being a happy parent. You can’t tell your child to calm down if you are yelling at them. Don’t want sarcasm? Stop being passive aggressive. If you lose your cool, model apologizing. If you make a mistake, model owning it. If children never see their parents fail they will grow up believing perfectionism is attainable and when they make a mistake they will feel small and ashamed.
- Spend Daily Time on Wellbeing Boosting Practices– Think of meditation, walking in nature, reframing, or learning about your strengths as flexing your happiness muscle. We go to the gym regularly. Take care of your mental health in the same way. Waiting until something goes wrong makes it a whole lot harder. Proactive mental habits will help the healthy and buffer those experiencing a mental health challenge. If your teen is intersted to join you, great! If not, that’s ok too- happiness is contagious. If you boost yours, it will impact theirs!
Have a teen story that might help or inspire another parent who’s about to hit bottom? Please share!
Have questions or comments about any of these domains? We’d love to hear them. Comment below or ask us on social media.
In her parenting book The Strength Switch, Lea Waters looks at parenting through the lens of strengths. Strengths-based parenting is a technique that encourages you to see what’s “right” about your children. Discovering and fostering their strengths rather than focusing on their weaknesses and fixing their areas of detriment is a somewhat novel approach. But are we doing children a disservice by turning a blind-eye to some aspects while embracing others?
What defines a strength?
It’s important to be clear on what Professor Waters defines as a strength. Strengths need three elements:
- Performance (being good at something)
- Energy (felling good while doing it)
- High use (choosing to do it regularly)
Based on this definition, being good at something alone doesn’t mean it’s a strength. When I was a child I was a gifted dancer and a competitive gymnast. Dance was something I did on the beach, in the grocery store, and in the kitchen. Even after three hours of ballet I would still want more. Gymnastics on the other hand was something I was talented at. I was naturally strong and flexible, and I learned knew tricks and routines with ease. It took me quite few years of actively pursuing both dance and gymnastics to choose dance. One day I recognized that I really never enjoyed gymnastics despite my skill. Looking through Professor Waters criterion, dance was a strength for me and gymnastics was not.
Strengths Change as a Child Grows
Different strengths present at different times child development. In the early years Waters recommends parents let children develop passions by providing low-pressure opportunities of discovery- let them play! In the middle years, starting at pre- adolescence the role of the parent changes. During these years providing opportunities and resources to support the development of areas of identified strength is what helps children learn how to use their strength. This is the busiest time for most parents where children prepare for the demands of adulthood but don’t have adequately formed brains to make good decisions and make plans for their future. We also see some strengths pruned in this phase which can be hard on a parent who has enjoyed the relationships with other parents at a specific activity. As a parent your instinct might be to encourage your child to keep going at a tennis or soccer but the important thing to do in these situations is to help your child decide and then support their decision. In late adolescence the brain development allows teens to use their strengths more consistently and appropriately. This is the beginning of high performance becoming part of your child’s unique identity. These years are where kids reap the rewards of their areas of strength.
Helping Avoid Strength Distractions
As parents we want to help our children, but often. in the age of the helicopter-parent, helping turns into doing it for them. You know you are off track in your parenting if you’ve become more of a coach/agent/manager than a mom or dad. If you see yourself falling into this trap, using your desire to help in a better way will help you to avoid a major parenting pitfall. Helping your child stay focused without becoming a taskmaster means teaching them to:
- Recognize the difference between useful stress and dangerous levels of stress
- See emotions as a useful part of our physiology- encourage your kids to feel them and express them
- Make their own decisions and choices
- Resist impulses that are distracting or detrimental
What You Focus on Matters
Parenting through strengths becomes essential when you have a child who has an area of challenge. I have four children, one with severe autism and one with dyslexia. If I spend all my parenting time focusing on the things my daughter with autism and son with dyslexia need help with I might think I am helping them to overcome their greatest challenges. But what am I missing? My son is fabulously creative in design and art, he has a brilliant memory and a gift for spotting details that most people don’t notice. My daughter has a keen sense of smell, a memory for music, and she enjoys nature. When I spend regular time encouraging them to use their strengths they can see themselves as successful, vital, individuals. This positivity provides a foundation that protects them from the epidemic of anxiety and depression that is challenging our youth. Knowing their strengths fosters resilience, optimism and a sense of achievement. To learn more about strengths-based parenting, I recommend looking at Dr. Water’s work and familiarizing yourself with another type of strengths, the VIA character strengths. Parenting can be both more difficult than you ever imagined and more rewarding. If you are struggling, reach out. Form a parenting book club and maybe spend a little time thinking about YOUR strengths too!