I hear you. You are concerned. You are worrying about your child. You question if they are going to make it or if they will be okay. You want to help them but you don’t know how. You know they are depressed or anxious or stressed out and you are struggling with how to support them.
You have asked this question many times to various health professionals. Perhaps you’ve talked to your therapist or your family pediatrician. And maybe you’ve addressed this question at a talk-back panel for mental health. And yet, somehow and for some reason, the off the cuff 15 second answer just does not seem adequate. On the same token, you have likely referenced every parenting book imaginable, telling you to do this and not do that – often all things that seem so unnatural or what I would call “inauthentic.”
Personally, that does not surprise me. These are your children and they deserve a much more attention rather than a one sentence answer. They also deserve an authentic response, one that is truly you. I believe this concern about our youth should be an on-going conversation that I hope this letter helps to start today.
Not the Blame Game
“The most aggressive and therefore the most dangerous words in the languages of the world are to be found in the assertion I AM.”
― Donald Woods Winnicott
I often hear parents express “it’s my fault that my child is this way” and often they blame themselves for the struggles that their children are experiencing. The simple truth is that blame does not help your child or yourself. What does help is to switch blame and regret into loving kindness, both towards yourself and to your child. Practicing loving kindness means to release negative judgement against yourself as a parent and a person, and accepting yourself for who you are. Often times when a child is exposed to parents and adults who are accepting of themselves as both flawed and beautiful can in turn increase the child’s own self-esteem.
Task: Release negative self-judgement, embrace vulnerability, and live authentically.
Presence not Presents
“Too much love never spoils children. Children become spoiled when we substitute presents for presence.”
— Anthony Witham
Expressing love to your child can take many forms. However, in our current culture of “work more get more,” we often express love in the form of “stuff.” Sometimes what children need or want more than anything is “presence” and not “presents.” Simply “being there” is often harder than it sounds, because it also requires us to be fully present with ourselves as well as our children. Turn off the TV, iPad, and silence all phones, and simply try to be there. Have a conversation that does not take place over texting or iMessage, replace Skype and FaceTime with actual people time. And if you feel so inclined, maybe let your child take the lead in what to do, you may find yourself surprised at their imagination and capacity for connection.
Task: Be there. Let them lead and explore your imaginations together.
Don’t forget to play
“It is in playing and only in playing that the individual child or adult is able to be creative and to use the whole personality, and it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self.”
― Donald Woods Winnicott
Often times as adults, we forget what it is like to play. We are so serious about working hard and paying bills, tuition, etc. Instead of a casual bike ride we are training for a triathlon to feel “accomplished.” Weekends are spent doing chores, yard work, and catching up with “life stuff” that our only time that we relax are those two weeks that are “given to us” as vacation. Imagine what this might look like from your child’s eyes. What might we be teaching them if we no longer have fun or play? Much like Peter Pan and the Lost Boys, it might give us unwarranted anxiety knowing that we have to grow up and no longer play. The most healthy thing that I can encourage parents to do is to get on the floor with your kids, and play. Access your imagination and creativity with your child as your guide, and see what they are telling you with their play.
Task: Be a child again.
Listen with space
“It is in the space between inner and outer world, which is also the space between people–the transitional space–that intimate relationships and creativity occur.”
― Donald Woods Winnicott
I believe that you all listen to your children, but this challenge and recommendation goes beyond just listening – it’s about listening effectively to what they are trying to say. While we all are great at listening to content, “I don’t want to go to the sleepover,” we often miss what they might be trying to say: “the boys at the sleepover pick on me and I don’t feel safe.” Effective listening means not settling with the answer of “good” or “fine” when we ask how their day was. Effective listening means truly inquiring and expressing care about their day, “what did you learn about today?” or “tell me about a moment when you laughed today.” You might also find yourself surprised at everything they experienced that day once you get past the “good” or “fine.”
Task: Don’t settle, engage. Listen with your heart, mind and ears open and your mouth closed.
So parents, this is by no means a how-to or an exhaustive advice list. But rather, these are some things that you likely already do, just revisited in a different perspective. I would challenge you to come up with new things on your own and if you are struggling with any of these, I would recommend that you reach out to a mental health professional to talk more about your struggles. Be gentle with yourself and this process. And don’t forget to play.
-Dr. David Songco