Loved, wild and stress free

Par­ent­ing guru Steve Bid­dulph on chil­dren’s men­tal health is­sues and the key to rais­ing strong girls:

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Front Page - Áine McMa­hon

Leav­ing Cert stress, peer pres­sure, Snapchat and fid­get spin­ners – Ir­ish young peo­ple are bom­barded with stres­sors that make us wish for The Wal­tons era. Aus­tralian in­ter­na­tional par­ent­ing guru Steve Bid­dulph says the growth of so­cial me­dia has com­pounded anx­i­ety and stress for young peo­ple and led to the marked plunge in men­tal health among teens in the western world.

Rais­ing Girls: Help­ing Your Daugh­ter to Grow Up Wise, Warm and Strong is a re­sponse to a world that is tougher than ever on young peo­ple – and girls in par­tic­u­lar.

Bid­dulph says the men­tal health prob­lems we are see­ing among young peo­ple are “pretty much the same as they are all across the post-in­dus­trial world”.

“Of course, eco­nomic stress makes it worse, as par­ents are stressed too, which chil­dren feel acutely. But even af­flu­ent and fi­nan­cially se­cure young peo­ple are also suf­fer­ing, so that is not the only fac­tor,” he says.

Ire­land has the fourth high­est rate of sui­cide among teens in the EU, with only Lithua­nia, Es­to­nia and Fin­land ex­pe­ri­enc­ing higher rates.

“Ire­land has very ca­pa­ble ex­perts on youth sui­cide and I’d be re­luc­tant to com­ment from the other side of the world. But here is what we know from my coun­try and the in­ter­na­tional pic­ture. Eco­nomic hard times do con­trib­ute, but are rarely the sole cause. So­cial me­dia doesn’t help, and needs to be kept in bounds be­cause it’s of­ten a cruel place. But the causes lie deeper than even that,” he says.

Cre­ated the con­di­tions

“For a young per­son to take their own life, two things have to hap­pen. They have to feel that life is too hard to en­dure, and they have to feel ter­ri­bly alone, which sadly is pos­si­ble even when those around you love you deeply. We’ve cre­ated the con­di­tions where both those things hap­pen way too of­ten. We haven’t wrapped enough con­cern and sup­port around young peo­ple, es­pe­cially in the wider com­mu­nity,” he says.

Bid­dulph says in writ­ing his book, he took the key in­gre­di­ents of re­silient men­tal health and made them prac­ti­cal: “Our com­mu­ni­ties are es­sen­tially too frag­mented and dis­en­gaged. So, the first thing was to have young par­ents feel­ing sup­ported and not rushed. So we have to take care – both gov­ern­men­tally and in our own com­mu­ni­ties – of young fam­i­lies.

“Fi­nan­cial and hous­ing sup­port, of course, but also we their neigh­bours help­ing with meals, babysit­ting, se­cond-hand baby needs, just be­ing sup­port­ive and friendly to those young cou­ples in our streets and neigh­bour­hoods. If they feel safe, then their ba­bies de­velop a life­long sense of se­cu­rity,” he says.

Bid­dulph has firm ideas on school start­ing age, and says the later chil­dren start, the bet­ter.

“We have to pro­tect child­hood, so not start school too young, but have play op­por­tu­ni­ties, kinder­gartens where there is no pres­sure or eval­u­a­tion, no test­ing, no for­mal learn­ing.

“So that girls es­pe­cially can be noisy, messy, free, and not turned into good lit­tle girls who please with neat work. And boys have time to ma­ture de­vel­op­men­tally be­fore

they are forced to learn,” he says.

While stress­ing the im­por­tance of fathers on young girls’ lives, Bid­dulph says young girls need firm older fe­male role mod­els that aren’t their mothers or in their peer groups, who they can go to with­out feel­ing judged.

He says if you want your daugh­ter to grow up “strong and free” you need to start early to bol­ster her se­cu­rity, sense of self and hap­pi­ness.

Peer group

“In girls’ lives it’s pro­tec­tive to have dads, or sur­ro­gate dads, who play with them, are warm and kind, and don’t hit or shout, or mis­treat their mum. In the teen years we need aun­ties or aun­tie fig­ures who sup­ple­ment what par­ents can give, and talk sense and wis­dom to girls, so the peer group is not their de­fault for their self-worth. We need schools that are fun and re­laxed warm places, with less test­ing, pres­sure or rush, where girls can dis­cover in­ter­ests and pas­sions that make life feel worth­while.

“We have to make sure that dads learn how to be af­fec­tion­ate, en­gaged, and kind, funny, and also strong in the sense of be­ing re­li­able, show­ing up, some­one you can count on. That doesn’t need fi­nances, in fact some stud­ies show a ca­reer dad is of­ten less avail­able as a par­ent, that it is his time that mat­ters to kids, not his wal­let,” he says.

“Aun­ties turn out to be very im­por­tant in girls com­ing through ado­les­cence safely, as they pro­vide some­one straight talk­ing, who loves you, and are less em­bar­rass­ing than mum to tell things to. Ev­ery girl needs an aun­tie or aun­tie sub­sti­tute,” he says.

Bid­dulph says the world is tough on girls as they face in­creas­ing pres­sures to be “dec­o­ra­tive for males”, which is height­ened by the use of so­cial me­dia.

Pres­sure to con­form

“We need to teach girls how to self-value, know about the pres­sures from boys and the on­line world, and feel they don’t have to ‘fit in’ – that they can be dif­fer­ent on the spec­trum – gay, in­ter­ested in non-tra­di­tional or very tra­di­tional, things and be them­selves. They need less pres­sure to con­form, less worry about looks or be­ing dec­o­ra­tive for males,” he says.

So how are we to help a gen­er­a­tion of girls and in­deed boys who have grown up on­line and tie their self-worth up in the amount of Snapchat friends and likes on their In­sta­gram selfie? While we can’t take phones off kids or ex­pect them to shun the in­ter­net, Bid­dulph says kids need a break from the in­ter­net to be them­selves, play and re­lax.

“Less en­gage­ment with so­cial me­dia, hav­ing par­ents who pro­vide some bound­aries, where the whole fam­ily leaves their on­line de­vices or phones on the charger from seven o’clock ev­ery night, so they can leave the stresses of the play­ground and world be­hind. Fewer TVs blar­ing the hor­rors of the world across the space where chil­dren play, and where con­ver­sa­tions can hap­pen. Only turn­ing on TV for spe­cific shows, not hav­ing it just go­ing on in the back­ground,” he says.

“New re­search is show­ing that na­ture, be­ing in the open air, even hav­ing a pet dog or cat, grow­ing plants or food gar­den­ing, helps to soothe and de­velop a sense of peace, and even­tu­ally, of spir­i­tu­al­ity and be­long­ing in the world. This strength­ens and lib­er­ate girls – in fact all young peo­ple.

“Mums and dads who are part of their com­mu­nity and bridge them to in­ter­ests, sports, hob­bies, arts and mu­sic, so that kids feel they re­ally do have a vil­lage. I think that in Ire­land you do these things rather well, and just need to get back to that, even in ur­ban en­vi­rons, to build back com­mu­nity strength. None of us can raise kids alone.”

In girls’ lives it’s pro­tec­tive to have dads, or sur­ro­gate dads, who play with them, are warm and kind, and don’t hit or shout, or mis­treat their mum

PHO­TO­GRAPH: GETTY

“We have to pro­tect child­hood ... so that girls es­pe­cially can be noisy, messy, free, and not turned into good lit­tle girls who please with neat work.”

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