AGE OF ANXIETY
Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD, is a widely published author,
psychologist, and speaker, who specialises in parenting and children’s social
and emotional development. The author of the award-winning children’s book, What About Me? 12 Ways to Get Your Parents’ Attention
Without Hitting Your Sister (Parenting Press), Dr. Eileen is also co-author of two books for
parents: Smart Parenting for Smart
Kids: Nurturing Your Child’s True Potential (Jossey-Bass/Wiley) and The Unwritten Rules of Friendship: Simple Strategies to Help Your
Child Make Friends (Little, Brown).
Practising in New Jersey and much sought after in media and national television
in the United States, she serves on the advisory board for Parents magazine and blogs for Psychology Today.
Writing in Smart Parenting for Smart Kids, she and co-author Mark S. Lowenthal, say: “As clinical psychologists, we’ve seen a lot of bright but unhappy children. In fact, some of the most miserable, angry, or stressed-out kids we’ve worked with were also the most academically capable. We live in a narcissistic age that emphasises being impressive and seeking admiration. Sadly, smart kids are often the ones who are hurt most by this focus on externals. Because they can perform, and that performance seems so important to everyone around them, they may start to believe that they are the performance.”
Dr. Eileen touches upon the some of the lead markers of our times in an interview with Pallikkutam.
Interestingly, but not surprisingly, anxiety, depression, suicide, eating disorders, or addictions seem to find near-universal incidence among the young, particularly among the school- and college-going young. So, the aforementioned do not seem to have any social, cultural, linguistic, geographical, or racial peculiarity. Dr. Eileen, what do you make of it and how do we make sense of it all?
There’s a lot of speculation — but no definite answers — about why mental health difficulties are so common among young people. Some point to out increasingly competitive societies that put excessive pressure on children. Some say it’s our electronic gadgets and social media that connect us constantly but can’t replace face-to- face relationships. Some say it’s “helicopter parents” hovering and protecting children. All of these probably contribute to difficulties for at least some children.
However, I think parental anxiety — Will my child be OK? Am I doing enough to support my child? — is markedly higher now than in past generations. Research tells us that when parents feel more anxious, they tend to behave in more controlling ways. This can get in the way of children developing coping skills, setting personal goals, and becoming resilient.
There is denial on all sides of the issue of mental health of the young. The quality of communication between parents and children, teachers and children, and, of course, between parents and teachers is, in part, to blame. As also the intensely competitive, do or die, and end of the world scenarios some of us often create wittingly or unwittingly around our young. How do we address denial?
The numbers are clear and alarming: In the US, half of all children will develop a mood or behavioural disorder or a substance addiction by age 18. Other countries report similar, extremely concerning rates of mental health difficulties in children and adolescents. We tend to assume that childhood ought to be a happy, carefree time, but study after study shows that children can experience high levels of stress and distress. Having strong relationships with peers and family members can be a crucial protective factor for children.
In order to restore some semblance of psychological stability and equanimity among the future custodians of our own collective future and destiny, what should we do? What should we look out for?
Our job as parents is to teach children how to cope with their emotions and build satisfying relationships. These social and emotional skills are fundamental to any kind of success.
Parenting involves a delicate balance. On one hand, we need to cherish who our children are at this very moment. On the other hand, we need to support our children in moving forward. Achieving this balance requires four essential components of smart parenting:
A compassionate ability to view the world through our children’s eyes;
The confidence to set judicious limits;
A commitment to turn towards our children more often than away; and,
Faith in our children’s ability to grow and learn.
In Smart Parenting for Smart Kids, you talk about how “Potential is a dangerous word.” You go on to say how, “Friends, neighbours, and the ‘child improvement’ industry are quick to tell use everything we need to do to help our children reach their potential.” And you use this exceptionally vivid phrase “overscheduled children” to describe what you call a “national problem”, that is, in the United States. Take away the last bit of geography and it will fit into any part of the world as we speak. How do we deal with this “child-improvement” industry?
It’s a dangerous trap to get caught up in thinking about what children ought to be able to do, or what most children can do, or even what a younger sibling can do! We need to deal with the child in front of us. Reasonable expectations are what a particular child does most of the time, or just a bit beyond that. Rather than trying to “build a better child,” we should think about “What has this child not yet learned?” and focus on helping each child grow in his or her own special way.
Therefore, in the fraught universe of parenting, teaching, and child rearing, what is the Way Forward? There is, obviously, no one-size-fits-all solution. Yet, what could be those key signals and milestones we could bear in mind in constructing, brick by painstaking brick, a way forward?
We can start with empathy. Genuinely trying to understand our child’s perspective, and communicating that understanding, is always a good starting point. We could say, “You’re feeling frustrated because your brother is teasing you” or “You’re feeling discouraged because you’re not doing as well as you’d like in math class.”
Then we can focus on working together with the child to find a solution or create a plan. Instead of punishing, we could ask, “What do you think might help?” or “What could you do differently next time?”
We can also focus on relationships. This includes direct modelling through our daily interactions with our children, as well as indirect modelling through setting an example by making friendship and family harmony a priority in our own lives. When we help children develop social and emotional skills, we equip them for life.