It is mental health awareness week in the UK once again, and the topic is kindness. I want to start out by reiterating that everyday parenting is definitely NOT to blame if children develop mental health struggles, however, we as parents, are definitely part of the complex processes and structures that either facilitate mental wealth, or inadvertently perpetuate mental ill health. The good news is that we can make a difference when we discover that we or our children are suffering, but today I want to address the issue of minimising the detrimental impact on our mental health.
The Mental Health Awareness week brings our attention to how we can sow the seeds of good mental health at an early age:
“Efforts to nurture kindness at an early age may be prudent, given evidence that kindness and altruistic tendencies may be innate in children. School-based kindness interventions, which are often focused on encouraging children to carry out intentional acts of kindness, can help children view things from the perspective of others, improve wellbeing and boost their acceptance among peers. The benefits of teaching kindness to children are also likely to extend beyond the children and the direct recipients of kindness - to teachers, classrooms and the wider school community.”
Whilst I am pleased to see this paragraph in the research section discussing the benefits of kindness, I was somewhat alarmed to see that they do not mention the parenting influence. Maybe they take it for granted, but in my opinion to leave out the role of parenting has missed a great opportunity. I would bet that 100% of parents set out to bring up their children free from mental health issues, but here is the rub – it is actually impossible. We can really only do our best and then cultivate our own kindness and compassion to be there for them if things go wrong.
So what about the families where there are no diagnosed mental health challenges, enough money to cover all the desires of the family, brilliant schooling, the ideal home and a happy family life? Well, research suggests that even the best upbringing will still potentially result in mental ill health. Why? Quite simply because none of us can really get into the mind of a child, or fellow adult. We make assumptions and guesses most of the time, and in addition, our own insecurities are projected onto others – it’s a natural, normal human state; none of us are immune.
During the lockdown I am currently balancing 5 online courses around education and wellbeing. They all have one thing in common – the neoplastic brain. I have mentioned before that I am thrilled we now use the term neurodiversity instead of ‘abnormal’ when it comes to people who present behaviours that are unusual or require additional support. In terms of our general mental health knowing about the brain and recent research reveals many of the reasons that we do end up facing challenges with our children and ourselves when it comes to feeling good. Feeling good here is defined as living our lives in a way that matches our core values. The call for kindness as a core value for individuals and society is clear in the pages of the Mental Health Awareness week activities and readings.
So how can we as parents promote kindness?
The first way is through modelling this behaviour, but kids are pretty astute when it may be faked for some reason – overcoming our natural reflex to vomit as we clean their running nose or wipe their bottoms is the start of matching our own actions with our feelings of kindness and love!
Other kindness behaviours that we can promote are the little things – leaving a note around the house that brings a smile to the finder; being careful to receive kindness fully showing how genuine gratitude looks. So often a child can bring a picture they have made to show their dad or mum and the parent takes a glance and goes back to what they were doing – simply talking an extra minute to stop whatever was being done and really take a look, listen to the story behind the picture, say how much joy it brings you to see it and know your son/daughter made it.
The second way is to really listen, and question. Denise’s guest article last week promoted family communication skills. In working with teenagers and adults in my coaching capacity, the ‘ah ha’ moment for most is when they realise that they had taken the words of their parents, aunts, grandmas as ultimate truth, not to be questioned. The brains neuroplasticity allows us to rewire ourselves once we accept this position, but I would like to campaign that parents start right at the beginning and listen to the sentences coming out of our own mouths and our children’s and then check……is this ‘their truth’ or simply ‘slack’ language use. For example “I’m fat and I’ll never lose weight” – if a child hears an adult say that, even incidentally, the brain stores that message and it potentially becomes their own template for weight issues later. Some children will respond with a healthy fitness regime of their own, others internalise and develop poor relationships with food and eating.
Our act of kindness this week, and in the future can be to simply observe ourselves, siblings, close relatives and friends and just catch those possible behaviours and words that might implant themselves in our children’s brains, unquestioned, seemingly just ‘funny’ or ‘for a laugh’, then gently, when the time is right, with compassion and kindness, tease out that their own truth does not depend on the actions and words of others per se.
If we can encourage our children to spot and question limiting beliefs at an early age, they will thrive, we will feel gratitude too, as they are far more less likely to suffer later mental ill-health – a win-win situation.