WORDS: Liv Downing
Modern parenting and how it contributes to anxiety in our kids
We were walking to school, my son and I. As we did every day, of course. I was rushing and flustered and trying to be all the things to all the people. As I leaned in to give him a customary kiss and an automatic “have a good day darling,” I noticed a dreaded splodge of schmutz on his school top. My automatic inclination was to call it out, to blame him for being scruffy and untidy (“look at you, you’re a mess”) and to shame him for not making more of an effort. But then, something truly magical happened, I caught myself and I stopped. Instead, I gave him a kiss and sent him on his way – splodge and all.
It was in that moment that I realised, with a small sting in my heart, that my automatic response must have been the response I had received as a child when I was less-than perfect – one of blame and shame. It occurred to me that such a response is actually all about the parent’s needs, and nothing to do with the child. The child just happens to be the one to trigger the parent’s own childhood wounds, in my case, wounds to do with perfection, keeping up appearances and being “good”.
The magic ingredient
So, what was the magic ingredient that allowed me to respond wisely and kindly on that morning walk to school? That ingredient was awareness and insight.
We have all seen the statistics on the rising rates of mental illness in our children and I think we are looking for answers in the wrong places. We are trying to fix our children, we are diagnosing them, medicating them, sending them to therapy and giving them labels that will impact them for the rest of their lives. As a registered psychologist, with my own history of clinical anxiety, I am incredibly supportive of any intervention that works and, in my experience, it usually requires more than just one thing. However, those I have listed above are not enough. We must shine the light of awareness on ourselves, on our family systems and on the way we are living as a society. As parents, we set the emotional tone in the family, and we know that the “environment is the invisible hand that shapes human behaviour” (James Clear) as well as impacting the way our children’s nervous systems develop.
Modern science is showing us that anxiety and depression are disorders of the nervous system, they are not to do with a “chemical imbalance in the brain”. Yes, there is undoubtedly a genetic predisposition for some of us but what turns on these genes? You got it, the environment.
Creating the right environment for our kids
In the wise words of Dr Brene Brown (social worker/researcher and TED speaker) “genetics load the gun; environment pulls the trigger”.
As parents, we need to get really honest with ourselves and ask
What kind of environment am I creating for my children? Do they feel safe? Do they feel loved?
When it comes to safety, it is not necessarily physical safety I am talking about (while of course this is a non-negotiable requirement for the development of a healthy child) but psychological safety.
We create psychological safety for our children in many ways. By being predictable and consistent in our emotional responses, by honouring and accepting our child for who they are rather than pushing them to be a “mini me” or achieve our own un-accomplished dreams.
We must first identify and then resolve our own wounds, before we pass them onto our children. And we must learn to love them unconditionally – not just when they get an A or win a race. The low hum of pressure and expectation can wreak havoc on a little body and mind.
It is not our fault we have ended up in this pickle. The speed of the modern world (leading to our busy and distracted minds), the pressures of social media (leaving us craving more and better), financial pressures to keep up the standards we feel we “should” maintain and a global pandemic are all contributing to this conundrum. We are busy, we are stressed, and we are not paying attention. But, at the end of the day, it is absolutely our responsibility to live consciously and choose a better way, not only for our children but for ourselves too.
So next time you are with your child, ask yourself, why am I saying/doing this? Is it for the benefit of the child or is it for me? We must wake up and become conscious to all (or let’s be honest, just some of!) our own wounds and insecurities, we must live and parent with more awareness.
Full disclosure, there are thousands of times I have not taken my own advice, times I have slathered my children in the scum of my own childhood wounds and insecurities, but I hope there are also thousands of other times I have caught myself and chosen a wiser and kinder way. I can 100% confirm that both my children still, on occasion, go to school with schmutz on their clothes and I am absolutely committed to letting that continue.
Liv Downing is a Melbourne based psychologist who has drawn on her own personal experience of burnout to release a new children’s book, ‘You are Loved’ to reassure children that they are loved, no matter what. With cut-outs on each page that create a beautiful heart shape, the book also comes with a meditation for families and is available from leading book stores.
As a mother of two boys, Liv has experienced first-hand the benefits of mindfulness and meditation in parenting. Through her work, she was involved in the development of the Beyond Blue mindfulness-based parenting program, Mind the Bump, and Smiling Mind, Australia’s leading mindfulness app – which involved working directly with children and educators in schools.
You are Loved is published by Allen & Unwin RRP $24.99