Imagine you are walking your child up to their classroom to drop them off to school. You put their bag in the racks outside their classroom and hug them goodbye, hoping your precious baby won’t worry so much that they end up feeling sick the entire day. You’re standing there staring through the window at your child’s class of 28 beautiful children, wondering how on earth you’re going to help your child through the debilitating anxiety that they come home with every afternoon. As those 28 buzzing children go to take their seats ready to begin their day, you may not be aware that out of those 28 children:
- one has been diagnosed with depression
- two have hurt themselves in times of extreme stress and anxiety
- seven are experiencing ongoing mental health conditions – losing sleep because of worry and anxiety
- many others in the room are the victims, or perpetrators, of bullying.
This is modern childhood, and as adults who care for the children in our lives, we must ask ourselves – what has gone so wrong?
The nature of children’s health around the world is changing. There is now a ‘new morbidity’ occurring, with obesity, mental health conditions, self-harm and suicide taking centre stage.
It seems extraordinary to need to talk about how we can promote good mental health in our children. Childhood is supposed to be an untroubled time in life, free from the stresses and burdens of adulthood and pressures of the modern world. As parents, we often assume that our kids innately have good mental health habits that will help prepare them for handling life’s inevitable challenges. Regrettably, this is not the case. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, over 14 per cent of children and young people have mental health problems, and 50 per cent of adult mental health disorders originate before the age of 14. We must stop waiting for the signs of mental ill health to appear, as then it’s too late. As parents we need to take proactive, preventative action that sows the deeds of resilience and positive mental health for our children.
The good news is as significant adults for our children, the real difference is in our hands; the parenting practices we use have a substantial influence on our children’s psychological wellbeing. Almost 50 per cent of the factors that determine children’s psychological wellbeing and happiness come from the environments in which they are raised. This means that there is a lot we can do to ensure our children reach their own unique potential and
develop their own healthy, strong psychological wellbeing that enables them to face the future with confidence.
We can help them develop habitual behaviours and ways of thinking that become encoded ways of automatically thinking and responding.
We successfully did this with the ‘slip, slop slap’ campaign, and the rates of skin cancer plummeted because both adults and kids became used to those habits and now don’t go out in the sun without their hats, sunscreen and long-sleeved shirts.
Now it’s time to turn our attention inwards to their mental wellbeing. Just like we can help our kids develop physical fitness we can help them develop mental fitness. We need to help them develop daily habits that take care of their mental health – just like they take care of their physical health by exercising and eating enough fruit and vegetables. These habits need to become second nature, just like putting on their sunscreen so that we can prevent mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicide occurring.
Most of us have not been taught positive habits of mind by our families or at school. But the good news is that we can all develop the skills and tools we need to improve our mental fitness and emotional wellbeing.
Parents’ capability to cultivate positive mental fitness in our children is greatly contingent on our own mental fitness. The ways in which we nurture and develop our own mental fitness serve as a template for our children. By modelling good mental fitness habits, tools and strategies that take care of ourselves and our psychological wellbeing, we are embedding protective factors that lessen the probability of our children developing anxiety, depression and other mental health difficulties.
In exactly the same way airline staff instruct us to put our own oxygen masks on first before helping others, we need to make sure we take care of ourselves first as we can’t take care of anyone else if we are running on empty. Our children soak in every action we take, and when they see us caring for ourselves by eating well, exercising, making time for friends, laughing and having fun, demonstrating self-compassion, using our strengths and taking some time out to rest, they notice that these things help us function better.
When we embed these building blocks of mental fitness into our daily lives, we are laying a strong, solid foundation for our children’s future upon which they can build the life of their dreams.
Kari Sutton is an educator, speaker and author who has helped over 25,000 children, parents, and educators with evidence-based strategies, tools and approaches to foster children’s positive mental health. She deconstructs the research, so you don’t have to and provides practical, easy to use tools and strategies that plant the seeds of resilience, emotional wellbeing and mental fitness in our children. She is launching her second book “Raising a Mentally Fit Generation” in late 2020.