Helping Our Kids Be Happier
We’ve all seen those horrible headlines about how more and more of our young people are harming or even ending their lives with depression and substance abuse – but not much is said about what we could do to help that situation. Let’s look at a couple things that can be helpful not just to our own kids, but to young people all around us, and even that ‘little kid’ in each of us.
It helps to understand that much of what pushes people into negative mindsets and self-harming behaviors is related to getting a lot of messages that there is something ‘not ok’, or not acceptable or not good enough, which frequently starts quite early in life. We all start out wanting to be loved and cared about, but some people start getting so many negative messages beginning early in life that they can lose faith in themselves or even totally give up on themselves – and it happens so early they aren’t even aware of it. While it is especially important for families to learn the skills to change that, sometimes it is those words of praise or encouragement or other forms of acceptance that come from other people in their lives that can help turn that stuff around. Think about how you feel if someone gives you a message that you are not ok, or not worthwhile, or people don’t want you around and realize those kinds of messages have a much more powerful impact on children because they don’t yet know how to put them in place or defend themselves emotionally. (That programming can go so deep that even when people try to give you positive feedback you instantly turn it into a negative in your own head.) In the same way, getting some positive feedback is really important. There have been important studies on how the failure to be held, touched and physically nurtured as infants and children can literally be life threatening, and yet I am not aware of parallel studies on the need for them to get positive emotional nurturing and the fact that approval, acceptance, and emotional support is just as essential – even though it often doesn’t manifest problems until much later.
Here are some really simple things that could make a big difference especially in childhood but also for adults – whether you are family member, friend, teacher, minister, boss, coworker or some other significant person.
First, make a point of always saying something positive to that other person, even if you are going to need to discuss some problems areas as well. If it is appropriate based on the relationship, include not just smiles, but hugs or similar gestures
Second, when that child – or even adult – does something you are not happy with, whether something mild or something really huge – stress that the behavior is bad rather than telling them what a bad person they are for what they did. Then help them look at alternate behaviors that would be good, acceptable and make people want to be around them more.
The important thing here is to recognize that we are often quick to tell people what they do wrong, but often slow to tell them things they are doing right. Both are needed to create a balance and help them develop a perspective. If kids are told all the time what is wrong with them and their behavior (especially if they are modeling the behaviors that are going on around them), it is hard to figure out a better way to interact on their own, and if all they are told is how bad they are, how do they know when they are good. They do not usually assume that if they aren’t in trouble those other times, they must be ok.
Third, but probably most important, is to encourage kids to talk about their feelings. Teach them to do it by example if you possibly can, or put them around people who are good at doing that, and when they do talk about feelings, listen and encourage them by asking them to tell you more, and instead of saying ‘you shouldn’t feel that way’, ask them why they feel that way and encourage self-exploration. The inability to express feelings also impairs the ability to seek out solutions other than becoming depressed or anxious or turning to substance abuse and other destructive behaviors.
Society tends to discourage people from expressing their feelings, especially feelings of pain, fear, insecurity and other ‘negative’ things. The result of that, especially now in a time when there is so much less direct, interpersonal contact, is showing up in those high numbers of people with depression, anxiety and substance abuse, and medication clearly isn’t turning that around. These skills have helped turn things around for so many of my patients, and I would love to see millions of people doing this for their loved ones —- so they don’t even wind up becoming patients, much less statistics. BTW, be sure you practice these same skills on yourself!!!