It’s not a shock to most people that mental health issues are on the rise. We are fortunate in the modern era to have access to technology that widely disseminates information, and more and more awareness campaigns are bringing attention to mental health struggles, like Bells “Let’s Talk” campaign for instance. These campaigns are designed to decrease the stigma around mental health issues and make people aware of the very real struggle that exists for so many individuals. What people are perhaps less aware of, however, are mental health issues in children and adolescents. Monday, May 7th is National Child and Youth Mental Health Day. It’s a day about creating not only awareness for mental health struggles, but paying particular attention to these difficulties for children and adolescents.
Growing up in the 21st Century
I can only imagine what growing as a child in the 21st century is like. Growing up in the 80’s and 90’s, the infamous television had already laid its roots, and was now a mainstay in the home. At the end of a long day, families would gather around the television to be entertained and enticed by the latest episode of “Cheers” or “The Wonder Years.” While more and more prevalent in the home, television screen time was predominantly an evening ritual.
The more recent technological advances of smartphones and tablets has made screen time far more incessant and ubiquitous. While these advancements have provided greater convenience and specialized provisions, they have certainly come at a cost. The cost is that many children and adolescents (parents too I might add!) do not know how to self-regulate their emotions and behaviour around screens. Our children are inundated with screens, and with every click and tap comes a surge of dopamine that reinforces their craving for more. With 7 screens in the average household, parents are presented with a challenge never before experienced by any previous generation. This challenge has created havoc in many homes as parents try to navigate tantrums and emotional meltdowns over loss of a video game or an iPhone. Amidst these new parenting struggles, it’s important to be reminded that while times are changing with widespread advancements in technology, people are the same as they’ve always been. 21st century children are still fundamentally children, and they have the same core needs as always.
Principled Parenting for our Children and Youth
Children need warmth. Warmth is in reference to all those warm fuzzy characteristics that make us feel safe and secure. Warmth includes characteristics of love, acceptance, nurture, affection, encouragement, validation etc. Children that do not regularly receive warmth are often insecure in themselves, and fearful throughout life. They learn to expect that others will harm them in some way and are very distrusting of the world around them. Consequently, children that grow up in homes with little warmth tend to struggle to form close relationships, largely because they never quite feel confident and comfortable with whom they are.
Children need structure. Structure refers to the implementation of rules, boundaries, expectations, routine, and a schedule. Children of permissive parents, where any sort of structure is neglected, end up without much self-discipline and self-regulation as adults. In turn, they tend to struggle to learn important social, academic, work, and life skills that help them be successful. From early on in life problem-solving and decision-making skills lag behind often resulting in low academic achievement throughout their upbringing.
In my role as a psychotherapist I frequently ask parents to reflect on their parenting approach through the lens of the aforementioned principles: “Is your strength in providing warmth or structure?” It’s quite natural to be stronger in one principle and weaker in the other. What’s important, however, is that we take notice of our parenting in relationship to these principles, and work towards a holistic, balancing of the two. Either principle applied independently of the other is insufficient to meet a child’s core needs.
I don’t often provide parents with specific rules around structuring screen time because everyone’s life circumstance is very different, and every child is unique. Nonetheless, I offer parents this perspective on prioritizing warmth and structure as they seek to raise well adjusted, healthy, and happy children. By no means is this a be all end all solution, but it can serve as a useful guide by which we can navigate the difficulties of parenting more confidently and effectively.
As you navigate the difficulties and challenges of modern day parenting, filter your actions through the lens of warmth and structure. Regularly ask yourself, “Am I tilting too far towards warmth or structure?” “Am I emphasizing one principle while neglecting the other?” By regularly reflecting on your parenting in this way you can quickly reorient yourself to a more holistic and balanced parenting approach.
Finally, as you practice, always remember that mental health for children and youth is as real as the air we breathe. Let’s be mindful of the very real struggle of mental health, while also striving to be the best parents we can be for our children and the next generation of world changers.