So many parents cry to me about their children. It is heart breaking to have a child who is suffering from any mental health issue including depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, separation anxiety, or phobias. It is also excruciating to watch a child with ADHD, Autism or learning problems, struggle academically and socially.
Parents are often confused and may be wracked with guilt. Common questions they ask me include:
- “What did I do wrong?”
- “What could I have done differently?”
- “Is it my fault?”
- “Could I have prevented things turning out this way?”
These are tough questions to answer because there is no simple response. So many factors are at play when parenting a child.
Factors that influence a child’s make-up:
- Your child’s genetic make-up is responsible for a huge amount. Genes determine the colour of his eyes, intelligence level and temperament. Some mental illnesses are believed to be hereditary and passed down in families. Genes support the “nature” part of the nature/nurture debate.
- The way that you attach to your child, and parent ongoing, can influence your child’s behaviour. This reflects the “nurture” part of the nature/nurture debate.
- There is a new field of science that has shown that genes are not unchangeable. While your child may be born with specific genes, the environment can influence and mould the genes. Today we believe that nature and nurture work in combination to lead to a result.
In the past, if a child suffered from anxiety, the “nature” protagonist would have said it was all a result of the genetic make-up of the child and had nothing to do with parenting behaviours. “Nurture” protagonists would have proclaimed that the anxiety was caused by the family environment and, therefore, parents were totally to blame.
Today, we believe that if a child has a genetic propensity for anxiety, the family she is raised in can determine the outcome. A loving, supportive family may keep the tendency for anxiety to lie dormant. A chaotic, dysfunctional family may cause the latent genes to manifest.
What a parent should do
As a parent, you are required to respond to the child you have been dealt. You may have been given a difficult child, a troubled child, a child with mental illness, a child with low intelligence etc. Your job is to provide the best environment for your child in an effort to try and reduce the possibility of a negative outcome.
- The most important thing that you can do is to attach firmly to your child. From birth, bond with your child and keep him at the forefront of your consciousness. Even as he grows older, thinking about your child’s needs and responding to them can make a huge difference to his mental wellbeing.
- From birth, make frequent eye contact. Limit the time you are on your phone and interact often with your child, face to face. This needs to be continued into adulthood.
- Be consistent. This includes keeping your moods stable but also living a life that has structure and routine.
- Keep your child safe. Your home should be a sanctuary where your child is not afraid of any threat. It also means being vigilant about what your child is doing and with whom.
- Communicate with your child from when she is very young. Share your feelings. Listen to hers.
- Share your wisdom about life. Teach life lessons. Guide with a value system.
- Practice acceptable parenting methods. Keep up with what the experts are saying. Today behaviour guidance, and collaborative problem solving, have been shown to be the healthiest way of working with your child and teaching appropriate behaviours.
- As soon as there is a problem, seek out professional help. The earlier a problem is detected and treated, the more easily it will be remediated.
- Love, love, love your child. Drop criticisms and enjoy him today, just the way he is.
- Accept that your child has her own journey that is unrelated to you. You are the person who facilitates her journey.
Unfortunately, no matter how much effort you put in, there is no way of guaranteeing that your child will become the person you want him to be. You can only do the best you can do. Validate the hard work you have done even if things do not go as planned. If you follow the tips given here, you would have done a wonderful job as a parent. The symptoms your child may suffer from are the result of other factors (like genes) that are beyond your control.