Mental health problems affect about one in five children and young people. They include depression, anxiety, and conduct disorders, and are often a direct response to what is happening in their lives (Mental Health Ireland ). According to the World Health Organisation around 50 per cent of mental disorders begin before the age of 14. Parents have begun to figure this part out themselves. They can unfortunately name on one hand children who needed some form of expert support for their emotional and mental wellbeing in the past 12 months. Parents are more than aware of the daily stories on all media forms of anxious children, crying spells, teenagers suffering migraine, school refusal, depression, bullying, missing youths, self-harming, suicides, violence, poor self-image, eating disorders, and so on.
Where has it gone wrong and with such an alarming acceleration? A fair share of it can be chalked down to today’s children and youth not having resilience skills. Resilience is that ability to bounce back from something that challenges your wellbeing. It is having the capacity to problem solve in a life or a social situation. A simple example of this would be children who have forgotten a school book they need to complete their homework on a given night who, on realising the error and the consequences of it (teacher being disappointed, falling behind in work, etc ), set about making a plan to solve their problem such as snapping a friend in the same class and getting the pictures of the pages they need. This is showing resilience. What would not have been an appropriate reaction would be sitting on the floor in tears, refusing to go to school the next day, screaming at family members, etc. This in fact would show no coping skills and would be a key sign that your child needed an intervention.
The harsh reality is that many of the children of Generation X and Millennial parents are just not as equipped for the life challenges they encounter as their parents and their grandparents. For example, imagine children who will not share their colours with your child. We as parents consult the teacher at the first opportunity and handle the situation for our children. We don’t give the children the opportunity to work this out for themselves. Perhaps the children do not want to share their colours as it’s the only new thing they own that term, perhaps they were told if they lose them there are no more coming. Maybe the children are not being selfish but afraid. Maybe there was a common ground for the two children to meet but this never gets the opportunity for development. Children no longer need to figure out how to manage their money to be able to buy a packet of sweets. Parents do a weekly shop and throw the big bag of Haribo in the trolley. Children no longer need to figure out what to say when they want to join in a game because as parents, teachers, coaches, and youth workers we immediately jump in with “let Johnny join in” instead of allowing the child or the youth a structured framework to solve their problem and support them with the language they need to be included — “Johnny, what could you say to the group to get them to let you join in?” — so that the next time it happens they know what to do instead of relying on an adult to intervene.
We now have the snowflake generation who melt away at the slightest bit of discomfort in school, sport, work, and life. This is because as our youth move into adulthood there is no longer the scaffolding of their parents there to intervene when something doesn’t go to plan. They have not learned in childhood that it is OK to have something not go the way they want, it is OK to not succeed at everything, it is OK that life is unpredictable. It is OK not to be OK. As parents our sole mission is for our children not to go without, for them to be OK, for them to be successful, for them to have better opportunities than us.
Yes, Ireland was a tough place to grow up in the 70s and 80s but perhaps that is why we are a more resilient generation than our children. And think back on our own parents’ lives and the great resilience they had in the 40s, 50s and 60s. All being said however, the good news is that resilience can be taught. We, as a society and as parents need to teach our youth and children how to take ownership of their wellbeing and resilience. This can be achieved through education– at home, in school, in the community, in society and at work. We need to equip our children with problem solving and coping skills as they are indelibly linked to all parts of life and are the nuts and bolts of good wellbeing and resilience.
Dorothy Scarry is a qualified primary and secondary teacher with a MSc in workplace health and wellbeing. She is the owner of www.nextstepforward.ie, delivering wellbeing and resilience workshops to those in school transitioning. She is a member of the Society of Occupational Medicine, Association of Health Promotion Ireland, INTO, and the Teaching Council. She has taught fifth and sixth classes over the past six years and she has seen the heightened anxiety and worry experienced by pupils.