This month, at the 2016 Positive Schools Conference in Sydney, well known parenting expert, psychologist and mental health advocate, Michael Carr-Gregg said that on average four kids in every classroom across Australian schools are experiencing a mental health disorder. Alarm bells should be ringing.
If that’s not enough, recent research shows that 41 per cent of Year 12 students experience some form of anxiety and 31 per cent have major depressive disorders. It also shows that a quarter of all girls aged 16 to 17 years old have self-harmed.
Australia is experiencing it’s highest rate of suicide in 13 years. For girls aged between 16 and 19 years, suicide rates have doubled since 2008. Right now, 8 people every day in Australia are taking their own lives.
‘Imagine if there was a skin eating virus in Sydney that was claiming 8 lives per day. Do you think the government might take it seriously then?’, Mr Carr-Gregg said.
Michael Carr-Gregg went on to say that the major concerns affecting the mental health of our teenagers are coping with stress, school and study problems and body image. These concerns are not dissimilar to the concerns teenagers had 25 years ago.
So why are these concerns having such a huge impact on our kids mental health in 2016?
The Positive Schools Conference was focused on the latest research, programs and strategies to support social and emotional wellbeing of school-aged children. Attended by more than 500 educators, psychologists, counselors and parenting educators, speakers included Maggie Dent, Alfie Kohn, Michael Carr-Gregg and Dr Chris Sarra – all leaders in the positive psychology of education field - gave the packed crowd plenty of strategies for helping our kids.
As a summary of the two-day conference here are four reasons why our kids are suffering now compared to 30 years ago.
Communities have dwindled. There is no longer the aunt, uncle, mother best or long-time friend for our kids to talk to. That lovely neighbour who knows the family and who watched out for the kids is no longer there. There is no longer a village raising our children and so the crucial conversations are not taking place. This is encouraging peer-to-peer talk without guidance and reassurance.
Kids are less exposed to risk. Being allowed to climb a tree, play in the creek or ride bikes around the neighbourhood are a thing of the past. When doing these activities there were valuable opportunities to learn to bounce back from adversity and develop intrinsic coping mechanisms. Now, our playgrounds are too safe. We are so concerned our kids might hurt themselves; we have built soft fall playgrounds and low monkey bars. There are no seesaws to smack you in the chin and no swings to go as high as you could.
The pressure to be perfect is heightened. There is little opportunity for our kids to make mistakes and improve. We are so focused on how our kids are doing in NAPLAN that we forget to see how they are doing socially and emotionally. Our kids are conforming to perfection and not taking risks to make mistakes, fail and learn. When they are so focused on doing it right, they loose the drive to do it at all.
We live in a ‘hurry up’ culture. The pace of our lives has increased. We are constantly on a treadmill from one place to the next. For kids, who naturally live in the moment, there is little time to play, learn and for us to teach. The number of children who cannot tie their shoelace at the age of 6 is alarming and it’s because parents have no time to teach their kids to even tie a shoelace. More importantly, there is reduced time for the crucial conversations with our kids because we are running around so much. It is a rush to get the kids home, fed, bathed and into bed before we wake the next morning to start again on the treadmill.
How can we as parents and teachers support our kids in this generation?
Here are 8 insights from the leaders in education, parenting and positive psychology who spoke at the 2016 Positive Parenting Conference.
- Build respectful relationships based on love and care
Our kids thrive in environments where they feel significant and loved. They are more likely to have the crucial conversations with the people who make them feel special and loved. Well known Australian parent educator, Maggie Dent coined the term ‘micro moments of connection’ which are those special little moments of connection between parent and child like a wink, high five, spontaneous dance together in the kitchen or the ‘I love you’ symbol you make up with your kids, are more important for building a relationship than scheduled one-on-one time once a month. It is not just the responsibility of parents and teachers to build these relationships; it is the responsibility of anyone who is involved in the lives of a child. Build these relationships to broaden their community of trusted people and recreate the village.
- Let kids experience risk
Experiencing risk obviously needs to be age appropriate and calculated like climbing a tree at the age of 3 or 4 or learning to surf at 7 or 8 years of age. However, when we do let our kids experience risk they learn intrinsically to problem solve and how to make mistakes and bounce back. When we are less fearful about the world, our kids will be. We need to let them go little by little so by the age of 18 or 19, they are independent enough to leave home, be resilient and make good choices.
- Give our kids mechanisms to cope
Our kids have fewer mechanisms to cope than we did. Maybe it is because they don’t experience the risk to develop these mechanisms or maybe it is because we don’t teach it to them. Developing emotional intelligence and understanding and recognizing their own emotions are the beginning of the journey. As is having strategies to deal with their emotions. Knowing how to get of the treadmill of our ‘hurry up’ culture is a valuable mechanism to cope with stress and might be through mindfulness, meditation, guided visualization or something like using the ‘Smiling Minds app’ regularly. By the age of 10, kids should have at least 5 strategies to cope with stress and to bounce back from negative emotions. These strategies will change as they change their interest and circumstances.
- Find what your child loves and do it often
This may change often but whatever it is they love, find it and do it often. Is it a sport, musical instrument, going to the beach to swim or reading a book? If a child loves something AND is good at it, this is what boosts their self-confidence and self-image.
- Encourage mistakes
Mistakes are a way to fail, bounce back and is where true learning happens. When children make mistakes, they build resilience, develop a have a go attitude and it encourages our children to really interact with the world without fear of failure. Get rid of erasers in the classroom and at home. Provide opportunities for kids to make mistakes and get back up again, like riding a bike.
- Encourage optimism.
Having a positive outlook on life helps kids bounce back when they hit a hard time or have negative emotions. This is based on positive psychology where a positive mindset goes along way towards warding off depression. If we teach optimism, our kids will ultimately know that the world is a good place. This might be through keeping a gratitude diary together – my 11-year-old daughter and I write in ours each night and share it with each other. It might be having a ritual at the dinner table of sharing ‘My favourite part of the day is…’ where everyone has a turn. It might be as simple as appreciating nature, seeing the rainbows, playing in the leaves in autumn, feeling the snow in winter or watching out for the new baby animals in spring. Or it might be playing inspirational songs in the car like ‘What a wonderful world’ by Louis Armstrong and talking about what is good about life.
- Physical health is important.
Kids need to eat well, sleep well and exercise daily. They need to see their parents doing the same. Doing all these things will help fight disease and illness and also is the beginning of a good habit for the rest of their lives.
- Life is meant to be fun!
Using humour and having fun relies on positive psychology to help kids combat stress. Every time we laugh or achieve something good, we release a bit of the happy chemical, dopamine. This makes us feel good. It is important to have fun together as a family. Read joke books. Take brain breaks in the classroom that are fun and break up learning. Dance in the kitchen. Go on spontaneous outings to have fun. Plan holidays together that are fun for everyone. Laugh. Pull silly faces. Create time for fun.
The main message from our leaders in education and parenting: now is the time we need to focus on the social and emotional wellbeing of our children to help them develop coping skills and navigate the ups and downs of life.
If you need help or support contact: Lifeline 13 11 14, beyondblue 1300 224 636 or Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800 (Australia based).
Anna Partridge is a Parent Educator, School Teacher and Mother to 3 kids. She is passionate about working with families to help them raise confident and resilient children. http://www.annapartridge.com Twitter: @_positiveparent