As a parent of two adolescents, I often think about how best to raise my children. I can sometimes see my father or mother’s parenting techniques finding their way in my own beliefs on how best to raise children. What has become very apparent to me is that no two children are the same and while role modeling and instilling values are critical components to a child’s healthy upbringing, there are many other variables that contribute to their overall development.
It seems to me that we are witnessing an era in which anxiety and depression, as well as other mental health issues are on the rise. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, mental disorders in youth are ranked as the second highest hospital care expenditure in Canada. Currently, 1 in 5 Canadians suffer from some kind of mental health issue. Perhaps humans have always had this rate of anxiety and depression, but it appears that the ways in which our children are coping with these challenges is changing. From signficant avoidance in the way of chronic school non-attendance, low motivation, lack of focus, to increased aggression and counterwill, substance use, cutting, suicidal ideation or attempts, and engagement in other high risk activities, some of our youth today are displaying concerning behaviours.
Over the past year, Riverside staff have been exploring ways in which we enable our students to develop socially, emotionally, and personally. Our goal has been to further promote and develop a caring and compassionate community, using the Social Emotional Learning Framework as a tool to guide us. Two weeks ago, I attended a session with Colleen Drobot, a counsellor who has been trained under Dr. Gordon Neufeld. Colleen provided us with insight into the importance of attachment and relationships with our children, understanding that many of the challenges we see in our kids today (attention, anxiety, counterwill) are rooted in their connection, or lack thereof to adults. Over the next few months, we, along with the staff at Pitt River Middle School, will bring Colleen back to meet with us so that we can better understand the needs of our students, how best to meet those needs, and how family and other key adults play critical roles in the development and growth of our children.
Attachment is the drive or relationship that is characterized by the pursuit and preservation of proximity. In other words, it is our desire to stay close to one another, to be emotionally and physically connected. The purpose in having our children attached to us is that it makes our children more receptive to being taught, cared for, and guided by us. It allows us to act with natural authority (clear family hierarchy), creates a sense of comfort and retreat in our home, evokes their desire to be good for those attached to, and acts as a shield to protect our children from becoming too wounded by the outside world. Children who are attached to key adults in their world move through the appropriate developmental stages (emergence, integration, adaptation). In emergence, our children show curiousity and interest in learning. They learn to think for themselves, value uniqueness and differences, and seek to be their own person. During integration, our children learn to contrast their impulsive feelings or wants with their emotions. In other words, they begin to understand that a desire may have consequences or that having courage in some situations is contrasted with foolishness in others. At this stage, our children begin to show self-control, work towards goals, be patient when frustrated, understand fairness, and be capable of cooperating with others. They show concern for themselves while caring about the needs of others. During adaptation, our children learn not to erupt in aggression when frustrated, to accept limits and restrictions, realize the futility of a course of action, benefit from adversity, recover from loss or trauma, and learn from mistakes and failure. They learn to go from mad to sad and it is often the acceptance of a situation that leads them to renewed emergent energy and adaptation. Our children must learn how to adapt and become resilient if they are to thrive in our society.
So, what are some things we can do as parents and key adults to help our children develop? First and foremost, connect with our children. Be present for them and be aware of nonverbal cues (eye contact, smile, openness, nonjudgmental, nonthreatening). Let them know in words and actions that they can depend on you. Protect your child’s dignity. Inspire trust and invite dependence. Independence will come with time and healthy development. Realize that there may be other key adults who can be a part of your child’s life (grandparent, coach, etc). Build a village for your child. Provide more than what is pursued (your child asks for a hug, give them two). Provide guidance, but let children problem solve with you to better understand healthy ways to make decisions and make positive choices.
Parenting is no easy task, but it is the greatest gift to our children. If your child begins to engage in behaviours that have you concerned, schools have staff available to assist. From counsellors, youthworkers, administrators, educational assistants, and teachers, there are plenty of people who can offer support or resources to ensure that your children and our children are able to lead healthy and successful lives. It takes a village to raise a child. Let’s develop a sense of community that tells our children we are collectively contributing to their development and well-being.