We’re in the thick of it now. Gone, for many of us, are the wistful thoughts of Summer being just yesterday. Here, for all of us, are the late-Fall familiarities: chilly air, dark mornings and even darker dinners, the occasional viruses, and all that holiday buzz. We also now probably share a deep sense of being fully entrenched in the school-year routine. As adults we feel the burden of meeting life’s daily demands. We can understand that our children feel this immensely, too. They carry with them the expectations of school, extracurricular activities, and family happenings, and this can lead to the accumulation of a very real feeling of pressure.
Not all pressure is bad. We know that there is good stress and bad stress, and that good stress leads to growth. But too much stress can indicate deeper vulnerabilities, because of either internal or external factors, or both. So now, right this moment, this week, or this month, it is as good a time as any to check in with ourselves and our children and ask, simply, “How are we doing?”
A lot of us have been hearing and talking over the past few years about how children are struggling with more mental health issues than ever before. “To put it simply, our kids are not O.K.” This line, from a New York Times opinion piece called We Have Ruined Childhood (August 17, 2019), refers to all the data showing that children are experiencing depression and anxiety in record-breaking numbers. Brook acknowledges the many and varied arguments circling about what has led to this upsetting increase, explaining:
...I’ve come to believe that the problems with children’s mental and emotional health are caused not by any single change in kids’ environment but by a fundamental shift in the way we view children and child-rearing, and the way this shift has transformed our schools, our neighborhoods and our relationships to one another and our communities.
The piece argues that because of changing demands on both parents and children, parents are more stressed than ever; meanwhile, children are suffering mightily, too. There are so many societal shifts we can point to. Fears about school shootings offer one lens; however statistically rare those events may still be, hearing about their devastation in the news--and practicing proactive safety protocols--strikes up an edginess in everyone. Other arguments include children no longer having sufficient opportunities for free time and play, and the overscheduling of children’s out-of-school time in part due to necessity (parents working longer hours and needing childcare) and to fear (parents are perhaps worrying about safety more than they used to).
Generally speaking, we know that how children are coping with these shifts in childhood landscape varies. We know that technology plays a growing role in how children socialize, and that while this opens up communication opportunities for some kids, it is not a replacement for real life social connection and skill-building. The omnipresence of technology is just part of the story; the Times piece argues that “childhood free time and self-directed activities have become taboo,” and as a result, children are having fewer in-person interactions (and, I’d argue, less alone time) undirected by adults, the kind of experiences in which autonomy, problem-solving, and social skills grow.
Whatever we may argue are the root causes of this growing depression and anxiety in children, we can all agree that we don’t want it to be this way for our kids. So what can we do? If we can’t overnight change the larger systems, problems, and sources of parenting pressures, what are some ideas for promoting emotional wellbeing in our children right now?
Lynn Lyons, who spoke at our Lower School last spring and whose school counselor training I was lucky enough to be a part of recently, argues that one of the greatest needs of our time is to redefine “success” for our children. She is not alone. There are now organizations (here and here, for starts) and countless folks in the field who are dedicated to shifting our cultural expectations of, essentially, the work of childhood.
The argument is this: When we solely focus on pushing our kids to get better grades or master extracurricular achievements, we are not preparing them for emotional success. If we are not prioritizing the need to coach them on how to manage life’s myriad uncertainties and the need for being able to tolerate the associated discomfort, we are inadvertently setting them up for failure. Often these days, the emotional fallout of not being prepared to emotionally manage life’s challenges happens when students go off to college for the first time; in many other instances, it happens much sooner.
But hope is not lost; it’s just up to us evolve our focus. It turns out, there are lots of tools for promoting emotional wellbeing in children that we can learn now, and while they require ongoing practice and often a significant shift in what we are prizing in child-rearing, I do think we can begin to create a meaningful emotional shift fairly quickly, if families work at it.
Over the next few months, I’ll be posting some ideas and resources for boosting up our children’s sense of self and social-emotional wellbeing. For now, above all else, I would offer up Tip #1: Work on creating more space for downtime and sleep. We are entering one of the busiest and emotionally taxing periods of the year. As parents, find a way to guard that invaluable time of rest for you and your family. Time to rest those tired, hardworking brains. (We know from neuroscience that it is during sleep, and downtime, that learning is consolidated.) In rest, we are not trying to accomplish anything. In downtime, for example, let your child lead the play and set her own agenda. Truly resting requires letting go of getting that “one more thing” done. We do enough of that all day, children and parents alike. Let go and rest; hurry up and sit. It’s worth it!