I've noticed a disturbing trend in the news, stories about suicide and self destructive behaviors in children and teenagers. Aligned with those articles I'm seeing stories about bullying, cyber bullying and destructive social behaviors.
I need to stop here for a moment and tell you that I am not a health care professional. I'm a Mom and Grandmother with no certifications. This post is just opinion on my part . I am not a republican or democrat and I have no official religious affiliation.
I'm also a conservative person when it comes to family, children and the animals and land I live on. They are always my first priority by choice. I love without reserve and freely choose to spend my life with them as my focus.
We're only half way through 2017 and I've read more accounts of children and teens hurting themselves as a response to what they perceive as pressure in their lives than I want to count.
This set of statistics comes from the Parent Resource Center, Jason Foundation:
It's an epidemic. It scares the h#ll out of me! I've been thinking about what I've learned this past several weeks while I read about this. It's keeping me up at night. I can not imagine the unmitigated pain the families of these children go through. It's horrible enough when your child is injured or ill, even more so if you loose them. There is no nightmare more complete than loosing a child. But knowing that your child could see no other alternative than death as a solution to the problems they have in front of them would devastate the whole family.
This isn't a post to discuss the unrelenting pain of loosing a child. It is a list of some of the ideas I have, things that I would do my best to use if my children were still in that age group. You're going to get the point of view of a mid twentieth century person here. And I still think these ideas are relevant too.
1. No smart phones at all for your child. Buy them a simple flip phone that does one thing only ; make telephone calls. No texting, no internet access, no cameras in a phone at all. When they are eighteen, they can earn their own money, buy their own smart phone and set up their own account with the company of their choice. Smart phones should be a device for adults only.
Why? Children need an opportunity to retreat from the world when they need to, a safe place where no one can ping them with calls, photos, text. They need a safe place they can rest without that constant social pressure .
They need time to learn how to use their imagination, to form their own identity and view of the world. They get enough pressure from peers, teachers, relatives and parents without making it a possible non stop interaction.
We're geared, biologically, to want to fit in. Even the most introverted of us need to feel like we belong somewhere. But I think we need to do this at a slower more natural pace, one that matches our own inner bio rhythms. Learning how to be an individual is hard work. Every step we take away from our parent(s) and family should be supported by the adults, with care. When you add in the hyper accelerated world of technology and the internet, it's easy to overwhelm a child. They are not tiny adults. They're brand new individuals who have no life experience to give them perspective.
2. Limited access to computers and iPads with supervision at all times. Computers and iPads and tablets with connections to the internet should be used with parental controls in place. If your child needs to do some research on a subject and write a paper, help them to access resources on the internet. Better yet, take them to the library and make it fun! There are Summer reading programs at nearly every library.
Teach them about how to use the resource centers at libraries; how to find books on whatever subject they are interested in. Sit down and read to them. If you can't afford to buy books, GO TO THE LIBRARY. It's FREE!
There's no doubt that computers are going to be a part of their world. Barring unforeseen circumstances, they will need to have those skills to navigate a fast paced school and work environment. But, again, build those skills slowly. It's more important to exercise their bodies and minds with imagination. Let them grow in to the world of communication and technology.
3. Buy them a pet. A child needs to have a companion that loves and needs them unconditionally. They need a dog, a cat, a bird, gerbil, hamster or even fish aquarium to care for. It builds compassion and a work ethic that is focused on caring for another individual.
Teach them how to feed, walk, clean and groom their "buddy". It can be a donkey, horse, goat, chickens. But I especially love cats and dogs. They run to greet them at the door when they come home. They love them because they're there. They don't care about any of the social pressures or issues (i.e.. school grades, sports, weight, fashion, physical appearance or any of the other categories that other's use to judge us by). They love with no other reason than just needing you. It's the finest form of unconditional love.
If you can't have an animal where you live, find the time to volunteer at a shelter or nearby farm. Or keep your child's pet at a relative's house (cool reason to go see Grandparents or Aunts and Uncles!).
I genuinely think that animals reconnect us to our environment and help to open up those parts of us that make us empathetic.
4. Spend time with them. I know you're thinking, " I'm working two jobs." or " I'm in school full time and working. " or " I'm a professional. I need to be there for my (students, patients, colleagues, etc)" There's no doubt you are going to be stretched thin. But they have a tiny space of time in your life, and theirs, to be children. They absolutely NEED, at a visceral level, that time with you. It's where they begin to learn how to love and be loved, how to work together with others, how to interact with the world. You are their guide posts in to a massive population and an ever faster world. Without you there to provide the security and support, how will they know how to navigate through life?
Children need to have someone who listens to them, taking the time to let them find their way to the point, without judgement. You are the person they need to bounce ideas off of. And you are the one they come home to when the world outside their doors is pushing in ways they haven't learned to cope with on their own.
Play games together (cards, board games, or even baseball and soccer, hide and seek). And don't hold back and let them win all the time either. Playing games is a safe place to learn how to loose and to change your plans to deal with those possibilities the next time around. They teach you how to strategize, to think creatively. Go on hikes, ride bicycles, swim, or volunteer to clean up a neighbor's yard. But do it together. Let the house cleaning go or do it after they go to sleep. Cook simpler meals so you have more time with them. Better yet, have them help .
5. Give them chores to do and a very simple timeline. This part should be kept easy but consistent. Breakfast and dinner at the table at a certain time. You all sit down together. When you get up, you say " Excuse me please. " and take your dishes to the counter.
Going to bed should be as close to the same time every evening as possible. There are always exceptions (i.e.. holidays and visitors, watching a special movie on Saturday night, catching fireflies in the Summer time) But for the most part, make it the same and make it later as they get older so you can eventually make it their own responsibility. It's a simple framework, a border, that gives their life consistency. You'd be surprised how much that builds good habits later in their lives, provides the security we all need to fall back on.
Simple chores could be making the bed or stripping sheets and taking them to the laundry room. Pick up your toys at the end of the day. Parents help with this. It really is fun when you turn it in to another game. And show them how to sweep the floor, clean the bathroom. Get them their own small tools and make it fun. Small rewards for a job well done such as ice cream cones on Sunday or making cookies that evening. Even a hug and " This looks great honey. Thank you! You're the best helper ever. " will make a huge difference to a child. It's a nice way to build self esteem.
6. Start a garden with them. It doesn't have to be elaborate. Even if all you have room for is one pot with a flower or herb or one tomato plant, you've given them an opportunity to take responsibility for growing and caring for something. It's all kinds of fun to watch a seedling grow from a seed. It's magic! and if it doesn't work, you have a reason to solve a problem. Why didn't it grow? Is the light, the soil, the amount of water, pruning? When you plant something you reconnect to the Earth. Putting your hands in to soil is an act of love and caring on a different level. It brings microbiology in to your child's life. They learn about insects, birds, rabbits and raccoons, fences, containers, turtles. The list is endless. Keep it easy and simple. You do the work in a the large garden(s). Give them their own little corner or pot. Let it be theirs to experiment with.
By now you've figured out that what I'm suggesting here is to spend time with them, focused on them. I'm not talking about scheduled play dates, dancing and piano lessons. Those can be there too. It's time just for them without judgement or criticism. Be there to listen, to support, and to let them go when it's time. And if something gets broken, help them clean it up or even to fix it. If they get skinned knees or elbows, sprained ankles or a chipped tooth, help them to care for it. Give them hugs and then set them back up on their feet and smile. Let them know it's OK to get it wrong. Gives them the chance to learn how to do it better the next time.
There's no doubt that along the way they are going to resist having the technology taken away. " You're the meanest Mom (Dad) ever! All of my friends get to do this. Why can't I? You just don't understand! ". There will be slammed doors and grumbling. Sometimes you may have to deal with a temper tantrum. Stand your ground. Do your best not to get angry. Let them know there are rules . It's another one of those Zen things. Be as balanced as you can.
It's the little things that count. All of those 1,2,3's build up and form a foundation of trust and love over time. Being a parent isn't a democracy. It's an extremely benevolent dictatorship that evolves in to a peer relationship in adulthood. If they know you're there when the going gets tough (and you've been there. You already know it is going to be like that sooner or later.), they will be more likely to ask for help or to understand that peer pressure does not always have to be adhered to. They will have already begun the process of learning it's OK to be different, to be a stand out, to be themselves.
And just in case you or your child is in serious trouble, here's a hot line number to call. Use it! Reach out for help. I promise you, there are people there who will gladly help.
Please, keep reaching out for the help you need. As a parent or guardian or as a teen or child in troubles, there are people who know how to be there for you. I promise! Never give up. Every single one of us is important. We all have a role to fill, someone who needs us.
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