Parents get the blame for most of the nation's failures so why should the appalling state of our children's mental health be any different? The statistics published as part of the Young Minds Matter campaign make for difficult bedtime reading and the issue is getting worse. In the past 10 years children admitted to hospital for self-harm has risen by 68%.
So if parents are at the root of this problem then what can we do to protect our children from this fate? Should we be enrolling our two year olds in toddler therapy, registering our 4 year olds at a so called "happy school" or make our teenagers start each day with an hour long meditation session? Well actually it's a lot simpler than that, the first thing all of us should do is to start looking after ourselves.
Children copy what we do far more than what we say. The statistics for children's mental health just isn't surprising when we look at the state of the adult population. When 1 in 4 people will experience mental health problems we have to ask ourselves; how can we expect to teach our children to be happy when we don't seem to know ourselves?
The problem is as a society we are reactive. We look at the dire consequences of poor mental health and try to fix it but maybe we have it all backwards. Doctors tell us that to avoid cancer, a heart attack and other preventative diseases we should eat well and exercise. They tell us that we should take care of our health to prevent illnesses. When was the last time you heard a doctor tell you that about your mental well-being?
The good news is we can look after our brain and if you don't think you can, think again. The brain is not stuck in a fixed state; just like any computer it can be reprogrammed. If we make a conscious choice to look after our mental health we can teach our brain handle stressful situations better by building up an inner resilience.
The most valuable part of this process is that we set the best example for our children. When our kids see us making a decision to be happy and overcoming adversity in a positive but honest way they learn how to do it themselves.
This is all very good in theory but where can we start? Life as a parent is often a challenging and thankless job but there are small changes we can make to our lives today that will immediately have a positive impact on ourselves and our families.
1. Practice Gratitude
Gratitude is an emotion is its own right; it has its own neuropathic brain waves that are distinctly different to other positive emotions such as happiness or empathy. We can train our brains to seek the positive aspects of life by actively practicing daily gratitude. Start a journal, take a photo or just spend the end of your day talking about the best bits. Most importantly though do it with your kids. Show them you are grateful for life and that you know how to look on the bright side.
2. Get moving
Exercise is good for both our physical and mental health. Physical activity releases endorphins that give us a natural high. It's a fabulous idea to enrol your kids in sports or dance class but show them that you value it too. If they see exercise as part of your lifestyle they are more likely to keep it up into their own adulthood. You benefit from it and by osmosis so will they. If you don't like the gym then get your walking boots on and get outside.
3. Enjoy life
Don't give up everything you love doing just because you have kids. You will be a more contented parent if you still do the things that bring you joy. To be happy we have to give our brain reasons to be happy. That may sound simple but parents seem to have an in built guilt mechanism, it's almost as if the more you have sacrificed for your child the more virtuous you become. Maybe parents should start being selfish and I don't mean running off to Spain with a waiter but simply to embrace the frivolities of life a little more.
If we are to find a solution to the mental health issues of our young then yes, we do need to look at ourselves. We need to demonstrate to our children what happiness looks like and not just presume they already know.