Hold on to your children…parenting in a ‘Stressful World’

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I am often asked to talk to various groups about the work we do at Meee. Recently I was speaking at a banking group and at the end of the talk on ‘Kindness’, a woman came up to me and was clearly distressed. She was really struggling with her son who was talking about suicide. With tears in her eyes she asked, “What do I do?” The waiting list to see a professional was so long as to be worthless and she was living in a state of constant fear. It was heart breaking. Parenting in the modern world is really challenging. We talked for some time and gave her copies of two of our books and some advice to help. This isn’t an isolated situation and the more talks I do the more people open up to the challenges they are facing. Because of this I thought an article on parenting would be useful…

The older generation will often suggest that nothing has actually changed and all that’s required is a healthy dose of tough love. And usually with a recognition that life is hard sometimes and we just have to get on with it. That old demonstration of the famous ‘stiff upper lip’! But the reality is very, very different. Baby Boomers lived in a world of cradle to grave welfare, a health system that was less burdened, affordable housing and an abundance of well-paid jobs that were not just reserved for the highly educated. And there was definitely no social media.

The complete opposite is true today. Being a parent in this new environment is bruising. Often, we don’t even understand the technology that is so deeply embedded in our child’s life. As for the child, it’s no picnic either. Human beings are unusual in the animal kingdom because they are not born ready. Almost all brain development is done after birth. And the brain is not fully developed until we are in our early 20s. So, children are developing amongst these new pressures when often they simply don’t have the biological equipment to handle the escalating stress. It may be that bullying has always existed but when I was at school the bullying stopped once you left school. The bullied child could go home and recuperate. There was space to recover and heal. That space has now disappeared. The constant connectivity of phones and social media means the bullying, and the pressure to conform and fit in, is relentless.

So, what can we do as parents?

First, it is vital that we appreciate the facts around brain development and the impact we have as parents in how resilient our children become. One Harvard study states that, “The architecture of the brain is created by an ongoing process which begins before birth and continues into adulthood, which either establishes a sturdy or fragile foundation for all of the health, learning and behaviour that follows. The interaction of genes and experience literally shapes the circuitry of the developing brain and is critically influenced by the mutual responsiveness of adult child relationships particularly in the early childhood years.”

The most important thing any parent can do is to be there. Dr. Gabor Maté, a Hungarian-born Canadian physician with a background in childhood development and trauma, states that a parent who is calm, non-depressed, emotionally present and attuned can play a vital role in their child’s development.

So, what does that actually mean?

1. Spend time with your children every day. You don’t have to be doing anything special, you just need to be there and be in each other’s company. Build ‘time together’ into your lives as a matter of habit. This used to be achieved at meal times. But today with various pressures and work patterns this doesn’t always happen. Wherever possible make it happen. No phones at the table and just talk about your day. There will be time that no one says anything and it may even be a little awkward, but stick with it. If this is not a habit, start with a day a week.

2. Remember, the brain of your child, unless they are over 20, is not the same as yours. This is especially true in the first 7 years and also in their teenage years. Use your words very carefully. Be mindful of your tone of voice. If you have had a bad day, take a minute for yourself and recalibrate. Take a moment to remind yourself of what you are grateful for before interacting with your kids. Make it a habit to find at least one thing to praise your child about each day. If that’s too much of a stretch from where you are turn off the criticism. Teach your family kindness and compassion through your actions.

3. Set limits and guidelines and be consistent. Everyone, including parents, could do with some ‘non-screen time’. We can hardly complain about how addicted our children are to their phones if we demonstrate the same addictions. Institute some ‘family down time’ from social media or the internet. Some internet providers allow you to set downtimes. Also, do your kids a favour and make it impossible for them to access wi-fi after a set time at night. Let them regain that space to recuperate and get some decent sleep.

4. Make time for your kids. Do something together. Watch a film together, play a board game or take turns on the xBox. Have family tournaments. Go for a walk in a local park (exercise rules permitting). Often, it is easier for children to talk if they are doing something else. They may open up more if it’s not an intense face-to-face discussion, but a shoulder-to-shoulder chat as you walk your dog. Give them the space to talk if they want to but try not to push.

5. Make sure your kids can come to you with anything. They are their own people and they are DEFINITELY going to make their own brand of mistakes, and you are going to be unhappy about them. That’s parenthood. Make sure that they know, no matter what they do you will be there and you will have their back. Give them a soft landing.

Harvard professor Clayton Christensen, who was also a profoundly wise and decent human being said, “If you want your kids to have strong self-esteem and confidence that they can solve hard problems, those qualities won’t magically materialize in high school. You have to design them into your family’s culture—and you have to think about this very early on. Like employees, children build self-esteem by doing things that are hard and learning what works.” Help them to work out what works.

In an effort to help families build these positive cultures and address some of the new issues we have to wrestle with I’ve written a series of little bite-sized books including ‘Meee in a Family Minute’. It contains 60 snippets of advice, insights, useful science, stories, short exercises or thought experiments and quotes that can help improve your family in a minute. Check it out. And good luck!

Written by Sid Madge
Author and founder of the Meee Programme