Recently, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee, proposed the creation of a K-12 mental health trust fund of $250 million in one-time funds, which Lee said will support the growth and placement of mental health services in at-risk schools. According to Lee, one of five children suffers from a mental health diagnosis, and the youth suicide rate has increased 56% in the last ten years. For adolescents, the number may be closer to one in four suffering with mental health issues. Today I had the opportunity to discuss some of the underlying causes of this epidemic on our local news station. I hope this post offers tools to equip your children with the gift of emotional health!
In the last twenty years, the well being of our children has plummeted to the point that professionals call it an epidemic. For tired, overworked parents, these numbers are overwhelming and even discouraging. We want our homes to be a place of hope and life, but we are overwhelmed with the bombardment of social media and technology, the fast pace of our culture, and all of the responsibilities we have to accomplish in a certain amount of time. How do we collectively move forward as parents to ensure the mental well being of our children (and even ourselves)?
Before we offer steps to prevent depression and anxiety in our children and teenagers, it is important to take a step back and ask: Why the steep increase? What is going on in culture? Clearly, needs are not being met in the lives of our children. What is potentially lacking in our homes and in culture at large?
In 2002, a report was published by The Commission on Children at Risk called, Hardwired to Connect. It was an interdisciplinary study done by doctors, research scientists, youth workers, therapists, and social scientists. It was done through Dartmouth Medical School, the YMCA, and the Institute for American Values (a think tank on Civil Society). The report and then recommendations took place because of the rising rates of mental and emotional distress in U.S. Children and Adolescents. It wanted to identify the crisis, present the underlying cause, and provide potential solutions.
The study concluded that the largest factor lacking in our young people is meaningful connection. The report stated:
- “Our kids are hard wired for close connections to other people.”
- “They are hardwired for deep connections to moral and spiritual meaning.”
Our children are neurologically wired to develop in loving communities that intentionally seek their well being. It is in those communities they can in turn learn to love and seek the wellbeing of others. The two primary factors cited as preventing these needed connections was overuse of technology and the crumbling of social institutions. This study took place before the smartphone and was primarily looking at entertainment and video games. The numbers have increased significantly since the advent of the smartphone. Meaningful connection with others and the world around them helps children to develop healthy identity and experience flourishing. Technology and the relationships found therein do not offer the life giving, safe, loving relationships that face-to-face interaction provides.
The Commission recommended that children need something they called authoritative communities. Authoritative Communities are places where children and youth have deep meaningful relationships with family and the larger community that offer boundaries, face-to-face contact, and meaning. As a mother of four, a teacher, and speaker I have learned that what fills a child will form a child. The relationships children have, the boundaries in which they operate, and every form of technology in which they engage, form how they view themselves and the world around them. They need safe, loving, authoritative relationships and need to be connected to something bigger than themselves including moral and religious purpose. With this in mind, I want to provide you with suggestions in three areas of a child’s life where changes can be made to nurture children emotionally and spiritually: Family Time, Faith Practices, and Food Choices. It will not happen all at once, but by taking small steps we can make a difference.
Often in our fast paced culture, parenting tends to be reactive rather than proactive. Below are a few suggestions to more intentionally invest in and enjoy your children at home.
Family Dinner: The kitchen table is a sacred place where our children learn of their own humanity. They learn to listen and to be heard. Make this a screen free zone where the day is discussed. Take time to hear about the ups and downs of each person’s day.
Family Time: Instead of watching a movie together, play games, read a book, take a walk or do a family project. Included in family time are family chores. Studies suggest giving your child more responsibilities increases their sense of value and self-worth. Make them a necessary part of the productivity of your home. No one is above cleaning the toilet.
Family Rituals: Routines and rituals provide security and meaning in the life of a child. Make a point to read to them each evening. Choose something positive to reflect upon together. Start the day in an intentional way, even if it’s in the car racing to school! Keep a book in the car of thoughts, practices, or devotions that you can read together.
Family Boundaries: Our children need boundaries that only we can give. Our culture provides very little in the way of boundaries and therefore very little protection. Children need boundaries to flourish. They provide mental/emotional stability and children feel this in the form of love. An example of boundary setting might be how technology functions in your home. There is no doubt this may be the most important boundary for parents to set. A book that I highly recommend to this end is, The Tech Wise Family, by Andy Crouch.
Provide hope: In 2018, the Harvard School of Public Health published a study linking healthy adulthood with early religious practices and experiences. The study found that young people who attend religious services and practice some sort of religious ritual such as prayer and meditation were less likely to exhibit depressive and anxious behaviors.
Provide meaning: In ‘Hardwired to Connect’, neuroscientists suggest that we are neurologically wired to seek deeper meaning. Children and teens naturally wonder why they are here and what their purpose is. Religious practice directs them and helps them answer difficult questions they face and allow them to see purpose in hardship.
Provide purpose: These practices connect children with something beyond themselves and enable them to feel part of a larger whole. It gives them purpose and hope and a vision beyond the present.
Provides connection: Faith communities offer connection with people of all generations. They enlarge their families. They offer ways to serve and demonstrate their ability to accomplish something together for good.
Nourishment is a key aspect of mental health as well. Our minds and our bodies are mysteriously interwoven and connected. If we are feeding children fast food, soda, and chips, they are not going to feel well physically or mentally. Stick to water and milk (or milk substitutes) for liquids, and offer less food options in shiny packages. Whole fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean meats provide the vitamins and minerals necessary for your child’s brain to develop and function in a healthy way.
Parenting is a beautiful and difficult journey. There is no greater endeavor than investing in the life of your child. This journey was never meant to be taken alone. If your child or teenager is noticeably more withdrawn, detached, or irritable, or not enjoying activities that they usually love, reach out to your community around you. Parenting is a communal effort and we need each other. If you sense the situation is not improving you may want to find a good therapist to work with you and your child. May we seek to truly fill our children with hope, meaning, and faith so that they may be formed in such a way that they flourish.