(A response to the telegraph article by Hilary French dated 10th October 2017)
Whilst I don’t disagree that technology and social media have a part to play in teenage mental health, I love how it’s so easy to blame these simple things for the issues our children are facing today. The society we have created for them, including excessive use of social media is a problem but whilst the media and the government have us focused on how the “evil” technology is damaging our teenagers, we are happily distracted from looking at government policy, the education system and common parenting practice and advice as a potential cause.
Look at what they said
Teenagers reported being motivated to get the best possible results to ensure their future but that contributed to high levels of stress for them. It is clear that we are not nurturing young people in schools, we are not inspiring them to learn and grow, or helping them understand how to care for their own mental wellbeing. We are telling them that exams = success = happiness and so they are strung-out chasing a dream of happiness that doesn’t exist.
Sure the success of academic achievement may bring them a career that is financially rewarding (but even that is by no means guaranteed anymore!) but the likelihood is these children will strive for “success” till their mid twenties or thirties, to either discover that academic achievement doesn’t necessarily mean financial (or any other kind of) freedom, or they will achieve the success that they have been taught to believe is everything, and find it is nothing. They are still miserable, looking for a reward that isn’t there and not dealing with their emotional wellbeing. The worst part is that the people who engineer society, know that.
Why is success the focus for our children?
It is a purposeful (tax generating) myth that achievement and financial success brings happiness. Our economy, business and the government is not run on happiness and wellbeing. It doesn’t pay. In fact, money can easily be made from your illness, your misery, and your constant need to stifle your emotions, and to make meaningless connections and reward yourself.
The irony is that we could have helped achieve real happiness (or mental wellness – as it isn’t normal to always be happy but that’s another issue) by doing things differently earlier on, saving people the most precious years of their lives. How?
In the article it highlights the importance of talking to our teenagers; connecting with them. Does this really need saying? REALLY? Well sadly it does because from day one the message is clear: separate from your child.
Put that baby down or they will get used to being close to you.
Don’t cuddle your toddler when he is angry, you are rewarding bad behaviour
teenagers are stroppy and hate their parents
These are just three examples of the mainstream parenting myths that are actively disconnecting and separating parents from their children.
Humans are primates and our instincts are to keep our babies close for a very long time. We are supposed to be highly social and highly connected beings. Other similar primates keep their young close (actually physically with them day and night) for many many years, into their teens even, and research suggests that the more complex nature of humans, and the earliness in developmental terms in which we are born means that this would naturally be longer in humans.
Our children need us physically and emotionally for a long time. They need us to hold them, and respond to them. We need to parent in a way that they consent to, that makes them feel loved and like they matter. It is important that they understand from your example that working towards your dreams (across your life) is something to be motivated to do. This won’t be achieved with stickers – unless their dream is to own the most stickers in the world.
Disconnection for the economy
BUT, even if you do parent in such a way that your toddler is a self-motivating, emotionally intelligent and resilient child (against all mainstream advice), what happens when you disconnect from them aged 4 (too young but again another issue) and they go to school, where you put your trust in others to guide them?
People can argue that home education may be the right answer but I only agree that in our society it is the right answer for some parents. For those who cannot (or choose not to), we need to pay much more attention to what is happening when we allow others to affect the minds of our children, and here is why:
Our school assessment and reward systems are destroying the integral resilience of young people. Their ability to understand that happiness is not a grade or a certificate comes from a deeply held belief in our society about how we should manage children’s emotions and behaviour.
When our children are constantly being “motivated” by extrinsic rewards (from stickers and generic praise to house points and trips to theme parks for attendance) and we never consider how we can make them want to learn, grow and contribute positively to society and their lives; we are damaging their ability to motivate themselves and be happy without external validation. Whilst their behaviour is being modified with behaviourist punishment techniques (from time-out to detention and isolation) that we don’t ever ask what is behind the behaviour or what connection are these children missing or how can we help them deal with their emotions more effectively; we are damaging their ability to manage their emotions, control their behaviour, and know that they are loved.
We are also teaching them that dealing with these things is too scary for us grown-ups. That when they are really upset, we send them away from us instead of connecting with them and talking to them or meeting their needs. We teach them that isolating themselves from us will help them be a better person and what we require from them is constant happiness, compliance and achievement.
Social media and screens
YES – spending all your free time on social media is a problem – for all of us! But if we are honest, the reason we want to is the real problem. The reason screens and social media are so popular is they provide a solution to the combination of two massive problems in our society. Social media and screen addiction are a symptom of our desperate attempts to connect with other humans (a connection missing from the start of our lives), coupled with activation of our neurotransmitters in the reward centres of our brain. It provides quick satisfaction to our craving of two unmet needs; a need for constant reward and human connection, however superficial.
What can we do for our children?
So the fix here isn’t to vilify new technology (never helpful) or even social media, with which we nearly all have a love-hate relationship. It is to look at the messages we give our children from day one all the way through their lives at home and at school. We must connect with our babies and toddlers and school age children and teenagers on a real level, working with real emotions and making them acceptable and manageable. They need to understand what the real rewards in life really are.
Mostly we need to change the messages that parents receive about their children, making them based on actual evidence and empathy. We also need to demand that our education system do the best for our children’s future wellness not the best thing for a broken society.
Thank you for reading.
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