Here at Will Williams Meditation, we’ve helped many people deal with the cumulative effect of years of stress and worry, and it’s been my observation that the particular pressures of the modern world are weighing most heavily. Unfortunately, this increasingly seems to be impacting our children. Whether it’s social media, exams, appearance pressure or some other theorised trigger, it appears that modern life is having a negative influence on the mental wellbeing of many young people.
This is borne out in the series of worrying statistics below. Parents must now wonder what they can do to ensure they protect the mental wellbeing of their children, in an environment that seems to be very hostile to young people’s happiness.
- More than a third of girls aged 10-15 in the UK are unhappy with the way they look, while one in seven are not happy with their lives overall.1
- The rates of depression amongst young people aged 12-20 have increased in the US.2
- 20% of UK 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 24.3
- The American College Health Association surveyed 100,000 college students at 53 US campuses and found that 84% of US students feel unable to cope.
- In the UK, the number of children and young people turning up to A&E with psychiatric conditions has more than doubled since 2009 and, in the past three years, hospital admissions for teenagers with eating disorders have also almost doubled.
- Mental health issues in the USA are, in general, on the rise, and are a leading cause of disability.4
With the happiness and health of their children already being a huge worry for parents, this paints a pretty bleak picture. To complicate matters, it can also be very hard to recognise the difference between the usual childhood ups and downs (there aren’t many of us who didn’t write a melodramatic teenage poem or two) and problems that a young person needs help with.
Say your fourteen-year-old hasn’t talked to anyone for a week, snaps at you, and spends most of their time morosely listening to sad music — is that normal teenage behaviour, or do you need to start worrying? Enforcing a constant state of happiness is both impossible and potentially damaging – all teenagers need the space to be their natural hormonal, moody selves – but on the other hand, you don’t want to be complacent. Like everything else in parenting, it’s something of a minefield.
Disclaimer: there’s only so much you can do. You are never going to able to guarantee your children won’t become unhappy. Neither can you completely shield them from unpleasant experiences (nor should you – in small doses, they are an important part of our experience as we grow). There’s also regrettable pain in life that you may not be able to prevent your children from encountering, such as a beloved family member passing away, or the parental relationship ending in divorce.
It’s difficult not to, but you shouldn’t feel guilty for not creating the perfect environment for your children to grow up in, because doing so is an impossible task – all you can do is your best. However, there are ways you can try to help your children be the happiest they can be.
Prioritise you, where you can
All parents know that their wants and desires (like wanting to get a couple more hours sleep rather than waking up at 5:30!) tend to get put on the back-burner. This is inevitable because you have a little person in your life whose needs invariably trump yours.
However, being happy and content yourself is a big factor in how your children are feeling. Dr Christine Carter, a sociologist and the author of Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents, said that:
“Extensive research has established a substantial link between mothers who feel depressed and ‘negative outcomes’ in their children, such as acting out and other behaviour problems. Parental depression actually seems to cause behavioural problems in kids; it also makes our parenting less effective.
“Although the study did find that happy parents are statistically more likely to have happy children, it couldn’t find any genetic component.”
Even though the quote above specifies mothers, the sentiment applies to both partners. If you are prone to depression or anxiety, don’t neglect self-care, and get as much support from your partner and wider family as possible. Also, if you aren’t already separated, take some time to focus on your relationship. Becoming parents can add a lot of strain, so putting effort into maintaining your partnership (such as organising date nights or sitting down with a coffee together every morning) can make a big difference.
Safe and Loving Environment
Kids can feel a huge amount of pressure these days, from lots of different sources. Social media means that they can quantify, through the competitive lenses of ‘Likes’, ‘Follows’ and ‘Friends’, just how socially successful they are. Exams and schooling have them constantly graded for their intelligence. And in an appearance-focused society, they believe they know exactly how they need to look in order to be loved and accepted by others.
Your home can be a sanctuary from all of these things. Creating a stable and loving environment gives them a point of calm (even if the presence of kids can make a family home seem rather chaotic!) from which they can build the resilience needed to face these pressures. A lot of this is making sure they know that within your four walls they are accepted and loved for who they are. It may seem obvious, but avoid mentioning their appearance, don’t make it seem as though your love or appreciation is purely dependent on them doing well at school, and actually listen to what they have to say.
Avoid piling on the pressure, especially academically. Dr Carter concluded that “parents who overemphasize achievement are more likely to have kids with high levels of depression, anxiety, and substance abuse compared to other kids.” Furthermore, the pressure of being labelled ‘smart’ actually puts some children off attempting harder challenges, lest they fail and lose their status.
Try not to focus on wealth and materialism
Steve Taylor, a senior psychology lecturer at Leeds Beckett University, UK, wrote a paper that goes some way to explain how materialism makes us unhappy:
“No matter how much we try to complete or bolster our ego, our inner discontent and incompleteness always re-emerges, generating new desires… No matter how much we get, it’s never enough.
“As Buddhism teaches, desires are inexhaustible. The satisfaction of one desire just creates new desires, like a cell multiplying.”
Associating happiness with material gain, and putting too much store in the “right” clothes or items, could make your children vulnerable to becoming unnecessarily discontented.
Be aware of the effects of social media
Social media has very quickly become a big part of our lives. The cat is out of the bag, and how you choose to deal with this is up to you as a parent.
Both Facebook5 and Instagram6 have been linked to feelings of depression, envy and loneliness in major studies. It’s also important to remember that the longer children stay on their devices, the more they are exposed to both blatant and subtle advertising – which, in its nature, encourages feelings of dissatisfaction and even insecurity.
Furthermore, younger children could find it harder to distinguish between what people post authentically and social media content that is sponsored by advertisers. Even media-savvy kids can internalise these artificially orchestrated, photoshopped images, believing that they reflect a reality which they are failing to live up to.
In this, arguably the best you can do is explain. Make them aware of how people use social media. They should know that their peers and even celebrities choose highly curated photos, and leave out the bad and boring parts of their lives. If you can encourage them to view it more as a compelling story, than anything to do with “real life”, it can lose some of its power.
Allow for emotional expression & teach optimism
One of the other significant things about social media is that it has led to our “public face” infiltrating even our most private moments. In this, even adults can feel like they are unable to be their authentic selves, and you can contend that children are even more sensitive to social pressure.
Furthermore, we may have been bought up to push down or belittle our own emotions (“Boys don’t cry”, “there are kids starving in Africa, you know”, “it’s not that bad, cheer up”) and might not be sure how to approach them when it comes to our kids. Alternatively, we may find seeing our children upset so heartbreaking that we instantly try to fix the problem, distracting them with treats or turning to other temporary solutions.
An alternative method is to allow your children to express themselves, attempt to empathise with them and validate their emotions, and help them understand what they are feeling. Although you should do this for both boys and girls, boys in particular can benefit from feeling that there’s nothing wrong with talking about how they feel.
You can also teach them, through example, to be optimistic. If they are feeling bad, remind them that although you understand their feelings, it won’t be long until they are feeling better. Communicating a generally “glass half full” view of life can be hugely valuable, and allow children to view the world in the most positive light possible.