In many areas, young people’s lives are improving, yet there is evidence of a growing mental health crisis amongst teens. Rates of anxiety and depression have increased by 70% in the past 25 years. According to the Office of Official Statistics, the number of young suicides each year is greater than it has been for 10 years with 1660 young people, under 35, taking their own lives in 2015. 10% of school children have a diagnosable mental illness. The Mental Health Foundation reports that the UK has the highest self-harm rate in Europe and the majority of people who report self-harm are aged between 11 and 25.
So, why is this? And what, as parents, can we do to prevent our children from suffering from mental ill-health?
A common target for blame, is social media and the intense pressure teens face, to be perfect, successful, popular and doing exciting things. However, not all children who engage with social media succumb to mental health problems so what factors may affect this?
I believe that a child with a good level of self-worth, confidence, healthy decision-making skills, who can adapt to change and is able to rationalise situations will be resilient to many of the pressures of current teenage life -including social media.
As parents, we greatly influence our children’s level of self-esteem. This influence starts early in our child’s development. As babies and young toddlers, we have little concept of ourselves as individuals but as we begin to develop an awareness of this then, based on how our primary caregivers treat us, we start to form beliefs about our own value. If we are continually receiving messages that we lack certain qualities, won’t achieve much, have negative characteristics then we are likely to start believing these things. Conversely, if we are given positive messages telling us that we are loved, worthwhile and that our opinions and feelings matter, this will build our self-esteem …. which, unfortunately, is also vulnerable to erosion at any age.
As human beings, we all have basic needs for food, water, warmth, comfort, safety, love and care and if we are not given these during our dependant years then it is highly likely that we will form the belief that we are not worth much. If our parents do give us these things, then this gives us a good base level of self-esteem. However, in the minefield of parenting, there are many ways of communicating with our children, that can erode their self-esteem or prevent it from developing healthily. Below are some unhelpful actions from which our child may interpret negative messages about their worth (accurately or not)
- A sibling may be receiving better love, care or has more priority
- Their feelings are being ignored or even made trivial
- They are being put down or ridiculed e.g. “You’re a silly boy”
- They are being compared negatively to others e.g. “Your brother is better than you”
- They feel their views or opinions don’t count, they are never properly listened to
- They are labelled negatively “Girls always sulk”
- They are over-protected in a way that makes them feel inadequate e.g. “No, you can’t do it yourself because you will make a mess of it”
- They are punished in a way that makes them feel that they are a bad person e.g. “You are always at the centre of trouble”
- They are unable to achieve the standards set by parents or school
As parents, it can be difficult to get the right balance of soft love and tough love and it is inevitable that discipline is necessary. This can be done with your child’s self-esteem in mind. One way to do this is to separate ‘the child’ and ‘the child’s behaviour’. This enables you to criticise the behaviour without criticising the child’s core being e.g. “I am cross that you lied to me” rather than “You are a liar”.
Another change that has happened in the last 25 years, which may be having an effect on young people’s mental health is parenting style. Once upon a time, a child aged 6 and above would spend time playing ‘out of parental range’. This may have involved going on a bike ride with friends, playing in a nearby park or a similar low-key activity. Without the presence of an adult, the child/children made decisions such as ‘shall I ride down that ramp on my bike?’ Decision making, time management, using initiative, adapting to circumstances and risk assessment were all skills that were being developed through practice and learning from outcomes. This resulted in children developing confidence in their own abilities. Children, 25 years ago, were more likely to sort out their own problems than children today. Today, children spend much more, and for some, all, of their time being supervised by an adult -a parent, a teacher, the leader of a club etc and much of the decision making, risk assessment and trouble shooting is done by the adult. Consequently, children get less opportunity to develop their skills and their confidence in their own abilities. As they mature and more is expected of them, they may feel daunted by the responsibility and feel inadequate and unable to cope.
As parents, we can present opportunities for our children to take some responsibility for some of the decisions, the risk assessment and the time management by delegating or consulting e.g. “Your swimming club starts at 5pm so what time do you think we need to leave the house to get there in time? You let me know when you are ready for us to leave”, or “I think that hill looks very steep ….do you think your brakes will stop you?”.
If children are invited to take responsibility they often do and can raise levels of self-worth and confidence which will give your child greater resilience when feeling pressured.
I am a Life Coach and a Course Facilitator for Positive Parenting, helping parents understand, support and improve their child’s mental health.