Children and Mental Health

With mental health disorders rising among children, Sabnum Dharamsi underlines how correct parenting at an early stage can provide a healthy future for our children I sometimes feel that childhood has lost its former innocence.

Gone are the days of children happily playing outside, discovering the glory of life, restricted only by teatime curfews and pocket money limits. And now it seems that all we speak about is iPads and protecting children from abuse. It feels stressful to think about all of this – and surely childhood is still idyllic. Aren’t kids just still kids? Well, unfortunately the answer is ‘no’, but also ‘well, maybe’. Let me explain. Consider the following statistics: Three children in every classroom has a diagnosable mental health disorder (and that’s just those who have been diagnosed). One in five young adults show signs of an eating disorder One in 12 deliberately harm themselves. Nearly 80,000 children and young people suffer from severe depression It’s worrying. While these statistics do not represent every child, we do know that the culture that children live in can also be a stressful one. Why is that? And is there anything that can be done? And can we ever go back to a time when childhood is what our hearts tell us it ought to be? First we have to understand the term ‘mental health’. If we break down the words ‘mental health’, it’s easier – it simply means well-being of the mind. So the work of a counsellor, alongside other mental health professionals, is to support that. Unlike when you go to a medical doctor, when the emphasis is on your physical state, a counsellor’s emphasis is on the inner state of a person – although as all medical practitioners will tell you, the inward and outward state of a person are intimately connected. It is difficult to determine why children’s lives are so stressful; studies have identified increased stress from bullying, anxiety over future prospects and school performance, a 24/7 online culture, body image pressures and family breakdown as well as poor economic conditions. And whilst difficulty is a part of everyone’s life, including that of children, it’s clear that some children are really suffering. Maybe they always have. Maybe we are just recognising it better. But in any case, whilst a part of me still does very much believe that childhood can be and often is a beautiful part of life, I do want to raise awareness about this issue. This is because if you are aware, you can find help or address things before they get worse. Most of us get very protective over children. If they fall over, and bruise their knees, we cradle them, give them plasters and kiss their pain better. But mental health is a hard subject to even contemplate and when it comes to applying these words to children, it’s even harder. We don’t like to think about these young minds being damaged or hurt in any way. And when things are hard to think about, we sometimes ignore or avoid things we really shouldn’t. So what’s going on inside your child’s mind? It’s so important to get to know your children. A big part of this is to recognise that they have a lot going on inside them.

It’s easy to forget that while children may not articulate or even understand their feelings in the way that adults do, it doesn’t mean they don’t feel. So the first thing to do is to look out for how your children are feeling.

Secondly, it’s important that you teach your child about feelings. Not just difficult ones, nice feelings too. Talk to them. Even young children can understand if you explore their feelings with them gently. So reassure them if they are hurt, explain to them if you shouted because you are tired, and show them love and appreciation. Treat your children fairly, with affection, and compassion. I love this advice from Imam Ali(a): “It should be your aim to display more kindness towards your child than the kindness that he displays towards you.” This kind of parenting can have a lifelong impact, because it is in childhood that we establish patterns of how to deal with those feelings. Consider your own ‘past feelings’ for a moment; how were you ‘taught’ as a child to express love? Was it through physical signs of affection (a kiss or a hug) or perhaps through more material methods (food or money)? If you compare this with how you show and receive love now, you’ll probably see some connection. In fact these childhood ways of being are so powerful and run so deep that they form the way we see the world – what psychologists might call ‘internal constructs.’ Now take a difficult emotion, like anger; it’s normal in certain situations, but some children have learnt to express anger aggressively. Others have learnt to repress anger. Negative forms of anger expression in children have been associated with a number of negative health and mental health outcomes, including elevated blood pressure, psychosomatic symptoms, poor perceived health, depression and aggression. So we have to be really careful how we parent – it sticks. I believe what makes the most impact is when parents are able to model ways of expressing a range of feelings and ways of being that are healthy. Modelling – or walking your talk – is really important for children because this is what they really absorb, rather than what you tell them. As Imam Ali says: “For sure, the heart of a child is like fallow ground: whatever is planted in it is accepted by it.” A recent study (data tracking 9,000 people from birth) has concluded that: ‘by far the most important predictor of adult life- satisfaction is emotional health, both in childhood and subsequently.’ It is even more important than if they achieve academically when young, or acquire wealth when older. And as a counsellor, the link between childhood and adult- hood seems so obvious sometimes; I’ve seen people go through similar events yet the way they respond to them is completely different and therefore their experience and expectations of life are totally different. If you are a parent reading this, you may feel ‘getting it right’ is a million miles away, as you struggle to pay the bills and just get some dinner cooked before the mad rush of getting ready for bedtime and prepping for next day’s school. I think then it’s helpful to remember that Islam is all about balance: “Thus we have appointed you a middle nation, that you may be witnesses for mankind.” (Qur’an 2:143). Finding this balance is something that I think we learn as we go along, not just something that just happens once and for all. But also, one aspect of balance that we so easily overlook is to take pleasure and enjoyment in life and in children. Sometimes we try so hard, that life itself becomes a chore. I find it so reassuring to be reminded: “God has created for your enjoyment everything on earth” (Qur’an 2:29) Life is a challenge, but children’s hearts – and those of their parents – are precious and need to be taken care of. Learning how to be emotionally healthy yourself is one aspect of balance – telling yourself for example, that it’s not wrong to give yourself a break, take time out and enjoy life as a family and for yourself. Create times when you can have those golden rewarding moments, whether it’s laughing over the simple things that happen, playing games in the park or talking about a verse in the Qur’an. That’s paying attention to mental health too – and it needn’t be all doom and gloom. •

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