We all want to do everything we can to enable our children to live happy, successful lives, yet for parents raising children in England, the mental health landscape can appear bleak. The negative impact of social media, academic pressures and financial worries, is widely recognised as contributing to a six-fold increase in longstanding mental health issues in 4-24 year olds in England over the past 20 years. With increasing reports in the news about anxiety, depression, eating disorders and other mental health issues affecting young people, we might justifiably wonder how best to protect and support them.
So what can we do?
The good news is – plenty! With a huge increase in research in the field of Positive Psychology, we know that there are evidence-based interventions that can raise our children’s resilience and wellbeing. One of the simplest frameworks to use, is Martin Seligman’s PERMA model, demonstrating that Positive Emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishment contribute significantly to wellbeing.
- Positive emotions can be created through doing what you love. Think about where you can go, or what you can do with your children this week. What quality time can you spend with them, to create memories for you all to treasure? The best thing about boosting positive emotions is that it works in three time zones – in the present when you’re actually doing what you love; in recollecting memories from the past when you’re thinking about the thing you enjoyed doing; and in anticipating of the future when you are looking forward to something you want to do! So, make time to talk about what you have enjoyed together, and what happy thing you’re going to do together next, getting your children to recognise and name their positive emotions.
- Engagement is when we become lost in the present moment, and time itself seems almost to disappear. Things we do that can absorb us to such an extent we create engagement or “flow” can include sport, music or arts activities – spending time on a project, or learning about something we are deeply interested in. Try to encourage your child’s engagement in active, rather than passive pursuits. It’s true that is also possible to “lose time” on the web, in a video game or when watching a movie, but this is more about escapism and distraction than flow. Feelings of wellbeing dependent on entertainment fade fast, and “being bored” without constant external stimulation can easily become a negative habit. Finding your passion in doing something active, on the other hand, leads to long-lasting and fulfilling personal growth. This may involve working through initial periods of frustration with an activity when skill levels are lower, and you will need to be able to support and encourage your child when this happens, to achieve the benefits of flow later on.
- Relationships – Positive relationships are key to human wellbeing. We are an ultra-social species and children need to feel they relate well to others – both peers and adults. Providing opportunities for them to socialise, without swooping in and rescuing them every time they have an argument, is vital. Support them by encouraging them to be solution-focused and solve their own problems collaboratively wherever possible. Disagreements are a normal part of human life. One of your most important jobs is to help your children believe they can independently find solutions to normal challenges; and that an argument can be resolved and is not the end of the world. There is no need to directly intervene, except in exceptional circumstances, such as if there is bullying. Keep the channels of communication open, so they know they can talk to you about what’s going on in their lives, and encourage them to make their own decisions, and to be kind. Spending time talking with your children and letting them experience the genuine interest you take in them, as opposed to being busy on a phones or watching a screens while they are around, will also go a long way towards ensuring mental resilience. Knowing that they matter to you for themselves, and that they are allowed to make their own choices and mistakes without losing your love and approval will boost their wellbeing and give them skills for life!
- Meaning – understanding the why of our lives, is where many young people start to lose direction, particularly in the teenage years. In a world that is increasingly consumerist, there is a tendency to attach meaning to owning objects – and scientific evidence shows that pleasure we gain from possessing material things, doesn’t last long. The pleasure we gain from memories of positive experiences and relationships is more meaningful. We create meaning through understanding our core values and strengths, and using these in our daily lives. We also create meaning through keeping going when times get tough, often with the support of others. There is a misconception that meaning is something that you find or have – when in fact, living a meaningful life is something that we do. Two positive psychology exercises that can help us build our sense of meaning are a) Looking for three good things in our lives at the close of each day; and b) Being alert for three ways we can help others throughout the day, and then recalling them. Doing these exercises nightly with your children (and sharing your own gratitude and kindnesses with them) is a great way to create wellbeing and a sense of meaning in young lives.
- Accomplishment Setting and achieving goals is demonstrated to boost wellbeing and feelings of self-efficacy. When chatting about what goals your children might want to work towards, make them SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timed). If they set something too difficult or long-term (I want to be top in the school in maths) or too vague (I want to be a better person), this might prove frustrating and demotivating. If your child has an ambitious long-term goal – that’s great – but find somewhere to start by asking them questions to “chunk” their goal-setting and break it down. If you want to achieve something by next year, what should you do in six months’ time? What is needed by next month? And in order to achieve that, what is your mini goal for next week? Goals work best when they are specific, intrinsic and small enough to be achievable in a short time frame. Help your children get where they want to be bit by bit, with plenty of time for rest and play in between. Children setting their own goals is essential – although you taking an interest and helping them to be accountable for the goals they have set themselves, will definitely help to boost their wellbeing.
Using this PERMA framework and building wellbeing habits into your children’s lives, has been shown to boost enjoyment of the present, as well as to create resilience and coping strategies for the future. Hopefully joining in will boost your mental wellbeing too!
Ruth Hughes is a qualified Positive Psychology Practitioner, Speaker, Coach and Wellbeing Consultant. A mum of two, and a former teacher both in the UK and overseas, she works in schools and universities as well as 1-2-1, and is particularly passionate about supporting people experiencing culture shock.