How Can We Help Our Children?
There is a saying that a parent can only ever be as happy as their unhappiest child (however old that child might be) and this will resonate with many of us. Is it any wonder then that when asked what we want for our children we say “I just want them to be happy” and we say this to them too.
Wow, what pressure! With all my worldly experience and skills as a psychotherapist I can’t manage to be happy all the time and I can guarantee that anyone reading this will agree. Why then do we expect that of our children; and no doubt, as children ourselves, feel the weight of that expectation too? Where is it written that children should never experience the full range of human emotions? Where is it written that children should not be upset or experience worry or anger or jealousy?
When I was a teenager in the 70s I had no experience of depression as we understand it today, though it was a word I and my contemporaries at school used frequently. We were always ‘depressed’ about one thing or another, whether it was that the boy we fancied got off with someone else at the scout party or that Jimmy Connors had just married Chrissie Evert and not one of us. In fact I once coloured a page of my diary in black crayon, drew a gravestone with the inscription “RIP Love” and wrote the legend “My life is a graveyard of buried hopes”. I can’t even remember the angst that lead to that outpouring of despair, but I do remember my Mum’s standard response “yes it hurts, it’s normal, it will pass”.
Now imagine the mother of a teenage girl finding that today. The word depression has taken on a different (medical meaning), constructed from her cultural and personal experiences. She will think “I need to fix her”, “This is a mental illness”, “What if she self-harms”, “I just want her to be happy”. The mother would feel bad because somehow it is her fault and she has failed to keep her daughter happy. The girl would be quizzed as to the duration and severity of her symptoms, sent to the school counsellor to resolve her difficulties or possibly to the GP for anti-depressants. Something would be wrong with her.
One of the hardest things for a parent to do is to simply “come alongside” a child who is distressed, without trying to fix anything or offer solutions or make them feel better; but to just acknowledge and validate the distress and allow it to be there. In order to do this, we as parents need to be comfortable with our own discomfort. We need to be able to sit with the feelings of helplessness and thoughts that we should be able to make our child feel ok.
So perhaps in order to help our children most effectively, we can take the pressure off them always to be happy and allow them the opportunity to experience all of their emotions, treating them all equally, and in doing so help build the emotional resilience to deal with life’s ups and downs.