On Monday afternoon, Catherine Stacker spoke to senior pupils about the benefits of positive thinking. This is especially pertinent given that we are living through a mental health pandemic. Demand for mental health support dramatically outstrips supply. Government statistics would suggest that one in six young people aged 6 to 16 had a likely mental health condition in late 2021 and this is up from one in nine in 2017. It is a trend that has been seen across the developing world. Olly Parker, Head of External Affairs, at Young Minds, notes the pernicious impact of lockdowns but also observes that:
“Young people are seeing a conveyor belt of life. They’re the next ones up getting a job, employment, a house and they see the next generation struggling to get those things and it seems to be getting harder. There’s a sense of a future that’s not really built for them.”
Add in the existential threat of nuclear armageddon, global warming and a deadly virus and it is not difficult to see why young people are struggling. The bar to accessing Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services is becoming ever higher and this means that young people are often waiting months for help or simply failing to reach the threshold in terms of severity. Here at Rossall, we are fortunate enough to have an excellent Health and Wellbeing Centre and we are in the process of bolstering our current provision by recruiting a mental health nurse. This will complement our current health and counselling provision and enable us to enhance further the support that we are able to provide.
Often, healthcare professionals end up dealing with situations that have progressed to crisis point when early intervention may have averted such a crisis. In terms of mental health, society tends to be reactive as opposed to proactive. The cost of this approach is potentially deadly given that it is abundantly obvious that even the most developed healthcare systems now struggle to respond effectively to the existing level of need. It is so important that we teach young children to look after their mental health by providing them with effective coping mechanisms. Children should be taught to develop a toolkit of strategies to employ when struggling with anxiety and depression. Being able to ride the waves that accompany our fluctuating moods is essential for our wellbeing. Simply telling people to become more resilient is unlikely to hold any real value. Resilience is an innate human capacity but it can be developed and learned in anyone. Our ability to demonstrate resilience is dependent upon our ability to embrace actions, thought processes and behaviours that enable us to confront stressful or upsetting situations.
The ability to see the positives in any given situation is of immense value. We have all known people who drain the energy of those around them with their ‘cup half empty’ outlook on life. Listen carefully and you will observe, more often than not, that such people tend to utilise relentlessly negative words. Whilst much work on neuro-linguistic programming has been discredited or dismissed as pseudoscience, there is little doubt that the language that we use to communicate to one another has a profound impact upon the way we and those around us view the world.
Realistically, it is difficult to be relentlessly positive because there is an inevitability that we parent our children at times when we ourselves are tired, frustrated or anxious. However, I do think it is important for us to be endlessly reflective and to interrogate our conscience when we say or do things that do little to build our children’s sense of self belief. There will always be times when our words or actions will be perceived negatively by our children. There will always be times when they need to know that we are disappointed. However, conversations which induce a sense of shame without offering a positive way forward are potentially damaging. We should not beat ourselves up relentlessly when we get it wrong but it is worth ensuring that our children are growing up within a positive framework which encourages them to see the joy, fun and beauty in the world around us. I do not pretend to be an expert on such matters and I am acutely conscious of the fact that my wife is probably much better at this than me but I think there are simple things that we can all do to support our children’s wellbeing. My children are aged ten and under so my list will probably evolve over time!
- Spend plenty of time outdoors making the most of the glorious countryside on our doorstep.
- Help your children to enjoy the wondrous beauty of nature by encouraging them to care for family pets or by encouraging them to help out in the garden.
- Laugh together – there is nothing wrong with being ridiculous.
- Anytime devoted to karaoke is time well spent – no matter how dissonant the performance!
- Read with your children and watch films together. Children love stories and it is through storytelling that we make sense of the world around us.
- Cook and bake together – few things are more therapeutic than this.
- Plan exciting adventures together. It is great to have challenges and goals that the whole family can feel invested in.
- Ensure that your children have plenty of physical activity and this is balanced by a healthy amount of sleep.
- Let them know that whatever challenges they face, your love will always be unconditional.
- Encourage them to work hard and commit to all aspects of their lives but without the additional pressure of thinking that the true price of their underperformance is your disappointment.
- The greatest thing we can give our children is our time and our love.
- Model what it is to be kind, compassionate and selfless.
- Let them see you fail from time to time.
- Do not take yourself too seriously.
That is by no means an exhaustive list and all of us will have different priorities in terms of parenting. For my sake, I know that when I focus upon the above our children appear to thrive.
Headmaster of Rossall School