When my daughter started at a new school last year, I think I immediately went into helicopter parent mode. You know, that parent you never want to be. I was concerned about how she'd adjust to her new school, a new set of friends, new teaching styles, new routines and new lunch menus.
Each day I would ask her: So, what'd you learn in school today?How are you feeling about math?Do you like your teachers?
Then I asked her who she played with during recess. It was only then I found out that she was being faced with some situations that were making her feel stressed and sad. A girl was apparently not allowing my daughter to be "in the group" if she played with certain other girls. Even though my daughter wanted to play with different people at recess she was made to feel guilty about her choice and told she couldn't be part of her group of classroom friends if she did.
We've all gone through this playground drama. It's part of growing up. Who hasn't gone through playground drama, right? What I didn't realize is how this situation was making daughter feel low about herself and her ability to handle her emotions on the playground. I think like most parents I wasn't sure how much to ask her about stress. Culturally, many of us grew up with more conversations about academics and marks than conversations about feelings and stress.
What I realized was that I needed to listen to her and hear cues on how she was feeling. I also needed to ask key questions about how this situation was stressing her out so that I could arm her with tools to respond and help herself in this situation. Her teachers were so supportive, and by working with them we were able to help empower my daughter to help her navigate this situation in a healthy way.
So, the question is, are we just avoiding having the conversation or do we just not know how to bring it up? If I hadn't asked about recess, my daughter would have never told me anything. And if we hadn't had the conversation about how to deal with the conversations she was having with these girls, then she would never to this day feel comfortable to bring up how she is feeling about things.
It appears I'm not alone in my habits. A recent report, Taking the Pulse of Canada's Kids: Kids: A Landmark Study on Physical, Social, Emotional and Mental Well-being, by Companies Committed to Kids (CCK) says despite ranking the mental well-being of their kids as the top concern, Canadian parents aren't talking about it with them. In fact the data from the report shows parents and kids are much more likely to discuss schoolwork (90 per cent), healthy eating (69 per cent), physical activity (61 per cent), friendships (57 per cent) and technology/media (51 per cent) over managing stress (28 per cent).
"I think that there are different types of pressures on children today, which may relate, in part, to the stress that parents feel under," says Dr. Debra Peplar, Scientific Co-Director of PREVNet and Distinguished Research Professor of Psychology at York University. With two parents working in many families, there isn't someone at home to provide the organization and support to keep life moving smoothly and predictably. As both parents and children experience time pressures, there may be less relaxed time to just talk about the wonderful and worrisome things that happened in a day."
How do we even start the conversations about managing stress?
"Children are most likely to talk with their parents if they listen attentively and positively, without interrupting and seeming anxious themselves," says Peplar. "In quiet times, perhaps at dinner, bedtime, or when driving in the car, parents can start conversations by asking some open-ended questions about their children's day: What was the best thing about your day? What did you do at lunch? What homework do you have? Were there any hard things about today? How was your math test?"
In the same study, parents ranked resiliency as the most important factor of a child's mental well being with over half (51 per cent) indicating they could use more support in this area.
"With young children, it is important to label feelings, both their own feelings and those of others. In this way children will begin to identify and understand feelings. As children get older, parents can help them recognize how their body feels when they have different feelings (e.g., anger, sadness, anxiety)," adds Peplar. "It is then possible to help children figure out some strategies for calming down (e.g., deep breathing, counting to 10, singing a song). Being able to regulate emotions and behaviours is a critical skill for almost everything that children have to learn." She states though it's important that we don't always wait for a negative experience to have these conversations.
"It is well established that children's mental health is linked to the frequency of having discussions about both the positive as well as the challenging aspects of daily life. The dinner table, a car ride, or couch time represent perfect places and opportunities to have these conversations."
Peplar says we, as parents, need to help kids think more clearly about how they can approach a stressful situation.
"It is helpful when children and youth can link their emotional experiences to physical sensations in their bodies (e.g., angry - hot, anxious, jittery; sad slow, tired). With this kind of understanding, children will be able to recognize feelings and calm down when they are experiencing them."
While many of us may not have not grown up as a generation with South Asian parents who sat us down and talked about feelings, I think this generation of mothers sees the importance of making it a priority, but we could definitely use more guidance on how not to just swoop in and take over the problem. We need to make sure kids can handle challenges and feel good when they have success. The message here, don't just leave the topic mental well-being off the table, make it a priority for yourself so kids can do the same.
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