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Five ways to strengthen your child’s mental health

9 HOPES

I had always thought of depression as a spiritual crisis of sorts.

Having experienced depression myself and watched people around me struggle with it, I wasn’t convinced that such despair was simply the result of random chemical imbalances in the brain.

It seemed to me that something about the way we live our lives was causing us to get sucked into the abyss of depression in alarmingly high numbers.

When I first spotted a book titled Lost Connections: Why You’re Depressed and How to Find Hope, I knew I had to read it. Because what is spirituality if not a sense of meaningful connection? Connection to self, to others, to life.

In Lost Connections, author Johann Hari weaves together research findings, interviews with academics, stories of real people and his painful experiences to offer a robust, compassionate and hopeful view of depression.

He’s not entirely dismissive of chemical imbalance theories but he makes it clear we have to go much deeper than antidepressant drugs if we’re to change the trend of diminishing mental health we’re experiencing.

The susceptibility of children

One of my deepest personal concerns is that my children are even more susceptible to depression than most because of my own history.

Wanting to learn how I could give them the best chance possible to live with a sense of hope, I recently re-read Lost Connections with my parent hat on.

Hari’s main argument is that society itself needs to change to make life more inhabitable for ourselves and our children. Many of the necessary adjustments must happen at a collective level.

We need to shift from the individualism we’ve adopted and return to our social roots. While I agree, I wanted to know what I could do for my children now, as I raise them.

Hari doesn’t address parenting directly in his book so, I dug around, looking for ways a parent could use his findings to protect and strengthen their children’s mental health.

I don’t claim that the following list is a complete analysis. These are five ideas that stood out to me.

1.   Give our children a sense of belonging

“In the West, we have shrunk our sense of self to just our ego (or, at most, our family), and this has made our pain swell, and our happiness shrivel.” (Lost Connections, p181)

Hari describes how our individualist way of living impacts our wellbeing.

We each use our resources for our benefit, protecting ourselves from the threat of “others” and taking pride in our  self-sufficiency. But, in bearing the burdens of life alone, our sense that we have others around us to support us and to whom we can contribute is missing.

Although we’re wired for social connection, we isolate ourselves and many of us find our mental health declining. Helping our children to grow up thinking, feeling and behaving in more socially connected ways is a valuable way to build their wellbeing.

Of course, a child’s first place of belonging should be within their family. It’s up to parents to ensure our children feel valued as members of our families.

We also need to show them that their actions impact the individuals within the family, as well as the whole. We can do this is by involving them in family decisions and giving them a sense of contribution through chores, for example.

Our children also need to know how to be part of other groups in their world, large and small. These might be as a friend, as a resident of their street, as a student at their school, as a player on a sports team, as a citizen of their country and as an inhabitant of the Earth.

Perhaps due to our individualism, as well as our busyness, we easily neglect our roles within these groups. Yet, it takes little to encourage our children to be a good friend, to commit to attending every practice for their sports team, to help with school fundraisers and adopt environmentally conscious habits.

There are many ways to contribute and connect.

2.   Give our children time in nature

Hari shares the observations of evolutionary biologist Isabel Behncke who noticed a link between wellbeing and environment.

She observed that animals deprived of their natural habitat (such as in zoos) show levels of despair they never exhibit when in their natural environment.

She wondered if, when deprived of the kind of landscape we evolved in, we humans experience the same effect. Following his conversation with Behncke, Hari found research that supported her hypothesis.

The research shows that even a small taste of our natural environment makes a positive difference. For example,  a view from our window or a walk through an inner-city park.

We don’t have to move to the country to ensure our children’s mental health.

Finding ways to add more green time into our children’s lives is a simple action we can take to enhance their wellbeing.

When planning entertainment or an outing with our children we need to change our defaults. Instead of indoor playlands, movie theatres and shopping malls, we could enjoy a picnic on the beach, take a ball to the local football field or explore a nearby bushwalk.

It’s also worth examining what keeps our children out of nature — excessive screen time, artificial indoor entertainment businesses (think arcades and laser tag) and plastic toys.

These all have a place, especially on a wet day, but they’re easy defaults for modern parents. I’d like to see us switch the typical balance and make nature more central, less supplementary in our children’s lives.

3.   Teach our children meaningful values

Our families are marinating in a culture of “junk values”. “Junk values” is a term Hari coined, to help us understand the impact of today’s values on our souls . Like a diet of fast food, they have no nutritional value and cause many health problems.

Junk values are the extrinsic values most of us unthinkingly navigate our lives by, essentially materialism. We believe that having the right things will be rewarding and raise our status amongst our peers.

The evidence is in the production line we put our children on. We insist that they earn high grades at school, so they can get into a high-ranking tertiary institution, so they can win a high-powered job, so they can earn a high income, so they can buy high-value possessions and become a high-status person.

Research shows that chasing these extrinsic values takes a lot of energy and “won’t improve our (your) happiness one inch” (p96).

It puts us in a position of feeling that we aren’t enough. We’re looking for happiness in the wrong places and teaching our children to do the same.

The alternative is to teach our children to use intrinsic values to guide their lives. We need to teach them to make choices that feel personally joyful and meaningful.

Being guided by intrinsic values will take their focus off the opinions of others and enable them to connect with themselves and the people in their lives.

To know what’s joyful and meaningful for them, children need the chance to listen to themselves.

The over-scheduled lives today’s children typically live in don’t allow them the space to do this. By freeing up some of their time to relax and do as they feel inclined, we can give them the opportunity to know themselves better.

Other ways we can support the development of their intrinsic values are by encouraging them to make choices according to what “feels right” to them and to approach school and extra-curricular activities as opportunities to learn and enjoy themselves, rather than pressuring them to achieve to a certain level.

4.   Put the internet and social media in their place

Connecting online has become a substitute for many in-person connections in modern life. But, as Hari explains, research shows that our brains are wired for old-fashioned face-to-face interaction, a need not met by online games and Instagram.

As we play and scroll, we isolate ourselves from real connection, absorb society’s superficial values, compare our ordinary selves with other people’s curated feeds and miss out on other meaningful experiences. In other words,

we deplete our wellbeing.

 

Looking at internet use from another angle, Hari explores overuse as an escape for those already suffering from depression and anxiety.

They don’t have to deal with the real world when they slide into the alternative realities found online. He argues that the deterioration of our offline lives has created the feeling of a hole that needs filling. Many people use the internet to fill that hole which, really, only makes the hole bigger.

It seems to me, it’s a chicken-and-egg thing. Whether a person’s internet use is in response to or a cause of their mental health struggles, we parents have an important role to play.

We need to play an active role in monitoring and forming our children’s attitudes around their internet use.

My experience is that many parents use the excuse that their children will be left out by their peers to justify putting a smartphone in their children’s hands. They watch their children fritter away hours on their devices, missing out on the richer experiences of life to satisfy the compulsions their favourite apps have created.

I’d rather my children learn to handle being left out sometimes, than see their mental health suffer because of their internet use.

These technologies are a portal into inappropriate content and are designed to be addictive.

We’re kidding ourselves if we think our children’s brains are mature enough to avoid harmful content or to recognise addiction in themselves.

We must be their brains for them, putting clear boundaries in place around how much time they spend online and what they do while there.

We also need to teach them how to use the internet with good judgement. If we do these things, we can hand management of boundaries over to them as they get older, knowing they have the knowledge and skills to manage themselves online.

5.   Develop our children’s self awareness

The thing that stood out to me throughout Lost Connections was that we need to be more attuned to how we’re feeling.

Rather than accepting the dysfunctional ways of modern society, then straining and contorting ourselves to fit in, we need to be led by our own inner responses.

When we feel internal pain, Hari tells us, it’s a signal to us that something is off. He finishes the book with this;

“It is only when we listen to our pain that we can follow it back to its source — and only there, when we can see its true causes, can we begin to overcome it.” (Lost Connections, p261)

Our pain matters. And our children need to know that their pain matters.

Our job as parents is to show them that their difficult feelings are important, rather than brushing them off. Let’s validate how our children feel and help them give voice to their feelings.

We can do this by being willing to talk about their inner world and, from a young age, giving them the vocabulary to do so.

Equally, I would argue, our children need to know that their joy matters too.

Not to be confused with the brief dopamine hit of material acquisition, joy is a sense of contentment and peace. One place to find it is in our favourite activities.

When I was a child, my joy was in playing the piano and writing stories. We need to encourage our children to look for their joy at least as much as we encourage them to apply themselves to their schoolwork.

The benefits to slowing down our children’s lives are huge, one being the chance for them to be themselves rather than scrambling to keep pace with the treadmill.

Also, introducing our children to practices that focus on who they are, such as meditation, can develop their self-awareness, perspective and an identity that doesn’t depend on other people.

“Mental health is produced socially: the presence or absence of mental health is above all a social indicator and therefore requires social, as well as individual, solutions.” World Health Organisation

My frustration as a parent is that we can’t immediately right the dysfunctions of society to make it a healthier place for our children. But we can steer our children towards healthier habits and perspectives.

In doing so, perhaps they will have the ability to play a part in recalibrating society.

Above all things, we must provide a healthy example for our children and raise our own mental wellbeing.

To be clear, at no point in his book does Hari make any direct statements about the way we raise our children.

He spent a lot of time in diners, interviewing people about their experiences and academic research.

I’d love to put him in the interviewee seat and probe his deep knowledge for parenting gems.

But, short of that, I hope my interpretation here does his work justice and can help us raise a more hopeful generation.

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More information:

Lost Connections: Why You’re Depressed and How to Find Hope by Johann Hari (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018)

You can find out more about Julie on her blog Untangling Motherhood

9 HOPES

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2 Comments

  • Thanks so much for making the time to write and share this. It is a lovely, wise and gentle reminder of the truth we all know but that fewer have the know-how or are brave / strong enough to apply. An enjoyable read and appreciated message / support kit. 🙂

    • Hi Johaniek,
      Thank you for taking the time to read and comment on this piece. It’s one that’s close to my heart and I think it’s an important topic for parents and caregivers to give thought to (especially given the climbing numbers of people struggling with their mental health). I love your point that what I suggest reminds us of “the truth we all know”. None of these ideas are new but, these days, we have to be particularly intentional about living by them because modern life can draw us away from what we need to thrive.
      Thanks again, Julie

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