Pornography, peer pressure, perfectionism to conform to social media, split families, self-harm, parental pressure to succeed, cyber bullying and gaming are all concerns of teenagers today, according to 4Corners documentary Our Kids that aired on ABC television last night.
In a telling episode, Australian kids from the age of 12 year to 19 years shared a glimpse of their inner world and what their hopes, fears and dreams are for the future.
While many of the concerns are not dissimilar to previous generation of teenagers, the explosion of social media has expanded the horizons of our teenagers and is having a dire impact on their self-image, increased exposure to world events such as terrorism and over use of technology.
Cyber bullying is wreaking havoc with teenage girls as well as the pressure to conform to the perfection that girls are seeing their friends on Instagram, Snapchat or Tumblr. A twelve year old girl in the program told of her need to belong to the ‘in group’ and used social media to compare herself to others – to make sure she had the latest white converse, the triangle bikini and Marc Jacob jeans and watch.
Another concern for teenagers was the added pressure of parents wanting their kids to do well at school. These kids were concerned that their parents are putting huge, unnecessary pressure on kids to succeed at school as well as to participate in an ever increasing amount of extracurricular activities and tutoring. One girl talked about how she was in the top maths group but her mum doubted her. ‘I’m going to fail every test according to mum’.
An alarming statistic in the program revealed that 30 per cent of 11-17 year old boys spend up to 3 hours a day gaming – more on weekends and it is affecting boys ability to use their time well. One boy said ‘I don’t have time for homework’. They are mostly playing the game ‘call of duty’ against each other in virtual online worlds and while gaming can have positive ramifications to help kids think outside the box, problem solve and build a community, there needs to be strong boundaries and rules in place from the parents to balance it with other activities, including homework and sport.
The major concern for this age group, especially among girls is the widespread use of self-harming. Self-harming is dubbed the new anorexia and scarily enough this age group do not see it as dysfunctional because it is so rife. Around 135,000 kids have self-harmed this past year. It is strongly related to poor mental health and can take its toll on all aspects of the teenager’s life.
Mental health in our teenagers today is at an all-time low with one in four teens currently have a mental health condition (including anxiety, depression and substance abuse) and a quarter also saying they are unhappy with their lives.
Access to pornography is altering the view boys have of girls. By the age of 10, every boy will have seen porn online and this is impacting on sexual relationships and intimacy between boys and girls.
The common thread throughout the episode that relieved stresses and pressures in teenager’s lives was physical activity and strong relationships.
So what role can parents play in the lives of their children to ensure they thrive though the teenage years?
By the time your child is a teenager, you have already sown the seeds of independence, love, trust, respect, good mental health, resilience, confidence, self-esteem and habits around technology. You have already built your relationship and while none of these are irreparable with a teenagers, they are easier to develop from the moment our children are born, than to suddenly input when your children are teenagers.
Build a solid relationship from the start
Extensive and widespread research shows that building a strong parent-child bond early is the number one factor to raising a resilient child. When a child feels loved, nurtured and a sense of significance and belonging from just one adult (ideally a parent or parent figure), they have stronger mechanisms to bounce back from adverse situations than their counterparts who have formed negative or no relationships with an adult and to make good decisions. The relationship starts the very moment you hold your child in your arms and it looks at you. Right from that moment, you are forming an important bond that will last a lifetime. Like any relationship, it needs to be nurtured and effort needs to be fed into it to make it work. One on one time is important, speaking respectfully, building the relationships on love and cuddles, creating micro moments of connection and acknowledging how special your child is to you, are all important in building a strong relationships.
Set clear boundaries and expectations
Just like adults, children are creatures of habit and love to follow rules when they are young. If you can set clear boundaries and expectations early, they will know exactly where they stand with you and in their environment. You will help them make sense of the world around them, form good habits and ideally make good choices when faced with everyday problems. When you set the boundaries and expectations, be consistent. Follow through on what you say and let your child feel safe and secure in their environment with you.
Be the role model
As a parent, you are your child’s first role model. If you have watched your children closely for a few hours or listened to them speak, you will hear and see snippets of your most common sayings or mannerism come out in their play time or voice as they mimic you. Provide your child with an environment and role model that is upbeat and gives your child hope and a positive attitude to move through their day. Young children react to whatever mood or state of mind you are in. If you are always stressed and in a hurry, they will pick up the vibe and develop a similar habit. Take time to stop and be with your kids. Have fun with them at the park or at the beach. Take them on nature walks. Think of who you needed around you when you were a child and be that person.
Meet children in the moment
Children live in the moment so meet them there. Don’t overload them with your own stresses and worries we carry with us as adults, both past and present. A child’s biggest concern in their day are generally meeting their own basic needs – food, water, sleep, safety and love. Meet your kids there. Because they live in the moment, they don’t need to dwell on something that happened last week or something that is happening in a months’ time. When we start to overload them with past or present stresses, they often struggle with such abstract concepts, especially when they are younger and find it harder to make sense of what is going on around them.
Don’t over catastrophize the situation
A child’s part of the brain that deals with emotions and rational decision making is underdeveloped. The prefrontal cortex doesn’t fully develop until the age of 22. However, as adults we already have a fully functioning rational brain. We need to use our skills to calm a situation down and don’t over catastrophize it. Because of an underdeveloped brain as a child, their response is irrational and so through words, actions and role modelling we can use our rational brain to invoke calm and coping strategies for certain situations that doesn’t result in a full blown catastrophe.
Let children experience disappointment
This is hard. Our natural propensity as a parent is the ‘fix’. However, if we continue to fix every disappointment our child faces, they are not going to develop their own strategies to cope with the ups and downs of life and the disappointment that results from that. So ‘be’ with your child when they experience disappointment and tell them how much is sux that they didn’t get into the cricket team or the choir. Be with them to experience it and problem solve ways to help them get over it.
Recognise emotions and strategies to deal with them
By helping a child recognise their own emotions and develop strategies to deal with them, we are allowing them to again navigate the ups and downs of life. The big emotions that press parent’s buttons are anger, frustration and sadness that generally result in an emotional outburst in some form from our child. Let your child experience these emotions, name them and put strategies in place to deal with them. Assure your child it is OK if they feel these emotions as long as they know how to move on from them. A simple way is to draw a feelings ladder with your child with the lower rungs being the ‘hard’ feelings (sadness, lonely, anger, disappointment) and as they go up the ladder they write down ‘good’ emotions (happy, excited). Then work with them to come up with simple ways to move up the ladder. It might be as simple as ‘have a cuddle with mum’ or ‘play music on the iPad’. Physical strategies that help them bridge the gap between ‘hard’ and ‘good’ emotions are important in ensuring our children are emotionally stable.
Shape a positive inner critic
For good mental health, we need to help our children develop a positive inner critic. They need to be self-confident and self-assured to back themselves in difficult situations and to make good choices. I was listening to the Big Magic podcast with Brene Brown and Elizabeth Gilbert and loved their idea that empathy was the opposite of self-loathing. By teaching our children to love themselves and be kind to themselves, we are setting them up for being able to deal with setbacks, making mistakes and failure. To encourage self-confidence, our children need to feel a sense of significance. Let them perform that dance concert with bad dance moves and terrible music. Let them experience new things and take risks. Let them say no and assert themselves and learn from that experience. Be interested in what they are reading, who their friends are and what they are learning at school. Know what they do each day and what they love at the moment. And use positive self-talk yourself – don’t criticize yourself in front of your children.
Discipline with respect and love
Every children will need discipline at some point and some more than others. When you are disciplining your child, remember it is the behaviour you are trying to correct – not the child. Don’t shame them or criticize them as a person. Speak to your child like you would talk to your best friend or your work colleague – with respect. Give lots of cuddles and use discipline as a teachable moment to learn from rather than a time to berate or shame.
Teach your children life has ups and downs
Life has moments of ups and moments of down and moment of ordinary and moments of joy. If you were to want to live in the up all the time, you would have the impulse of an addict and if you found yourself in the down all the time, you would be depressed. Ideally we want to help our children understand the natural cycle or flow of life and help them find strategies to deal the see saw. By creating one on one time for a rich discussion together and finding the teachable moments in the day to coach and support our children is the ideal way to help children understand the cycle.
Find a community
Humans are hard wired to be social beings. It is our job then as parents to help our children form their community so they have support from peers, friends and other adults who they can turn to when times get tough. Ideally their school becomes their most immediate community where they can rely on teachers and students to support them and talk to. If the school isn’t this place, find a good local sporting group or other all-encompassing group that will bridge the community gap. Ideally, as a family you will also have your own community that will be rich in support for your kids. Your friend group, sporting groups, church group or neighbourhood are all good ways to find a community.
Create a place for discussion and be interested
This was the advice a 16 year old girl in the 4Corners episode gave for parents ‘Something so simple as a ‘how are you, how are you feeling?’ can change a kids life, honestly it can’. Be interested in your child’s day and talk to them about what they have been doing, problem solve any concerns they have, know who their friends are, make time to get involved with one or more of their activities – sporting or school. Create a space for these sort of discussion to take place. Putting your kids to bed at night might be the best time when you are snuggling up and talking about the day. It might be a space in the lounge room or in the kitchen when you are making dinner. Find a spot and time for these discussion to happen because if you don’t, they will not talk to you.
The other priceless piece of advice for parents to come from a 12 year old boy in the 4Corners episode was ‘Don’t wrap us in cotton wool, wrap us in love’.
Anna Partridge is a Parent Education, School Teacher and Mother to 3 kids. She is passionate about working with families to help them raise confident and resilient children. www.annapartridge.com