The day before my second son was born I sat in my hospital room, a place I had called home for nearly a week due to strict bed rest orders, and cried because I knew what it meant to have to share my child with the world. Tomorrow he would no longer be just mine. I would no longer be the only one who could feel him move and squirm and kick. I would no longer be the only one who knew him, really knew him. He would be part of the world and the world was a scary place. I desperately wanted to keep him in a bubble, shelter him, shield him from the bad stuff. I hadn't had these same feelings with my first child but by the time my second delivery was upon me, I got it, I understood the scary stuff and I was not ready for another child to be exposed to all of it.
Fast forward almost 8 years and I find myself craving a bubble for both of my children more than ever. These days it seems like I am having a conversation with them about some devastating event at least weekly - terrorist attacks, racism, police shootings, riots, war - heavy stuff. Catchy hashtags fill our social media accounts, news alerts chime on our phones, we turn to live Reddit feeds for up to date information as the bad stuff unfolds and parents all over the world are having to say, once again, to their children: "There's something we need to talk about." Today's children have to practice what to do in an active shooter situation in their school, review safety plans with parents should something happen while in public and process truly frightening information.
Lately it all feels overwhelming. Hopeless. Terrifying. At times it is too much for adults to handle and to process. For those of us as parents, it's even more daunting because we have to find a way to paint a picture of hope for our children in the midst of so much hopelessness. We have to educate and protect our children but also smile and put on a happy face. We have to be their sunshine when finding the sunshine sometimes seems impossible. But how? I certainly do not have the answer. There is no magic elixir or magic wand. No secret rule book. I struggle on a daily basis to instill hope in my children and often when I lay my head on my own pillow, I second guess most of what I did that day. In those moments, I find myself reviewing a few key strategies that just might help us raise our children with hope; even when things feel hopeless.
1. Be Honest
As with most things, children know more than we think they do and they crave honest information. As much as I want to shelter my children from hearing about the bad things that happen, now that they are in school and in sports, this is simply not a reliable option. They can potentially overhear information from an adult or directly from another child in a number of locations. When parents make the decision to provide their children with honest information, there is better control over what and how specific information is shared with their children.
2. Watch What You Say
On the flip side, be mindful about what you say around children, not just around your own children, but when you are out in public. You don't want to be that person who exposes another child to information their parents had not yet shared.
3. Consider Development
Children's emotional and cognitive capacities develop significantly throughout their childhood. Before sharing details with them, take their developmental stage into consideration. A 12 year old will want and need more specific and detailed information than a 7 year old may need. Avoid going into too much detail or overwhelming them with details. Let them guide you on how much information they need.
4. Be a Role Model
Let's face it, children learn a lot from watching their parents: the good, the bad and the ugly. Show your children that feelings like sadness are normal. If you are moved to tears, go ahead and cry. If you are angry, name it. Be sure to not only show your child that it is normal to feel emotions but also demonstrate acceptable ways for them to express those emotions. Avoid holding it all in and expressing it only when the children are not around. Let them in on the realness of feelings. You will be providing them a solid model for how to handle and manage life's biggest challenges to come.
5. Reassure. Reassure. Reassure.
Children need to feel safe and the adults in their lives are the ones who are tasked with that monumental responsibility. I am not advocating for you to tell your children that nothing bad will happen to them or near them ever as that would be a lie. You cannot predict the future. You can, however, point out that good stuff happens far more often than the bad stuff. Remind children of all the people and systems in place to keep them safe. Reassure them that you would never knowingly put them in a dangerous situations. Highlight safety measures that are in place in they express fear over attending a certain event. Repeat as many times as necessary. When you think you've said it all enough, say it one more time.
6. Limit Media
Television news, social media accounts and newspapers now provide non-stop, around the clock coverage of every horrific event imaginable. Pictures, video, audio clips; it's all out there and it can quickly become too much for children. Be mindful of what children may be exposed to and consider whether it is necessary. I recall hearing accounts from 9/11 that many children interpreted the frequent replay of the plane hitting the tower as multiple planes hitting multiple buildings day after day. Even if you think your children aren't watching the news with you or don't see the headlines on the newspaper, think about what they may overhear from the next room or what they may see when the newspaper is left casually on a kitchen table.
7. Create an Open Dialogue
Children need time to process things. It is not unusual for children to need days or even weeks to develop questions or be able to express their thoughts on difficult topics. Send your child the message that you can always find time to talk with them. Many parents have success by carving out time each night around bedtime for an opportunity for children to share their experiences, thoughts, feelings and ask questions. Some parents schedule weekly one-on-one parent/child dates at a coffee shop or fast food restaurant to connect. These conversations tend to be better received when they focus on one child at a time, rather than as a family dialogue with multiple children of various developmental stages.
8. Point Out the Positive.
Despite what we see on a daily basis, there are lots and lots of great things that happen locally, nationally and internationally. Seek out the good stuff and share it often with your children. Local newspapers can often be a more positive source of news, particularly for children. Highlighting the positives can also go a long way to helping children feel safe. No amount of the good stuff is too much!
9. Highlight Ways to Help
The feelings of powerlessness and helplessness often come hand in hand with feelings of hopelessness. One way to combat powerlessness and helplessness is to do something. Research local, national and international charities and causes you believe in. Get your children involved. Be creative. Help your child to feel like one person, one family can make a positive difference in the world. See what your children come up with - they may surprise you!
10. Monitor behavioral changes
Keep a watchful eye on your child's behavior. Changes in sleeping and eating patterns may indicate that your child is having a hard time processing some events. Changes such as suddenly wetting the bed again or asking to sleep in your bed could be a normal response to stressful information. Be careful not to shame your child about changes like these. Rather, give them some time, continue to provide reassurance and keep a watchful eye. If you are concerned, reach out for support. Your child's school, their pediatrician and local child therapists are all great resources.
What are some other approaches and strategies that have helped you parent with hope today?
If you have ever been on social media, you surely have seen those bright and cheerful memes reminding you that "Happiness is a Choice," instructing you to "Be Happy" or "Choose Happy" and sharing insights such as "Mind Over Matter." Often these memes are helpful, serving as a way for us to reframe our outlook and view our lives through a more positive lens. We've all had those days (or weeks) where nothing seems to be going our way and it becomes very easy to focus on the negative. A bright and simple meme may catch our eye as we scroll through our Facebook feed and somewhere deep inside our brain the message resonates with us. Suddenly we begin to consider the things that are going right. Sometimes we can "Choose Happy." Thanks, Facebook!
But what about those times when happiness isn't a choice? Are there times when we simply can't "Choose Happy"? According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly 10% of the US population suffers from a mood disorder such as Major Depressive Disorder, Dysthymic Disorder or Bipolar Disorder. Nearly half of those cases are classified as severe (National Institute of Mental Health, 2016). Think about that statistic. 10%. 1 in 10. Let's look at it in terms of raw numbers: the National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that there are over 20 million Americans living with Major Depressive Disorder or Bipolar Disorder (National Alliance on Mental Illness, 2016). 20 Million. For these individuals, happiness isn't always as simple as making a choice. Anyone that has ever battled a mood disorder or known someone with such a diagnosis knows that even when everything in someone's life is going right, happiness for them can be fleeting. Sometimes it can feel completely impossible. For many individuals, happiness is often just out of reach and the weight of depression can be deeply debilitating.
For these individuals it isn't as simple as choosing happiness. For many, depression is something that will follow them for many years; always lurking just around the corner. Treatment and symptom management options include medication, psychotherapy, support groups, lifestyle changes and diet changes. In other words, it takes work and lots of support to manage a mood disorder and just when it finally seems to be under control - boom! The bottom drops out and suddenly everything feels overwhelming and hopeless...again.
What is it like for these individuals when they see the bright and cheerful memes on social media reminding them to choose happiness? Wouldn't it be nice to think the memes have magical powers that can rewire the chemical imbalances in some people's brains? Wouldn't it be wonderful if these catchy phrases could do away with the need for anti-depressants, psychotherapy and help to eliminate the need for mental health reform? Wouldn't it be amazing if memes could make those suffering from depression finally break free of the black cloud that is often swirling around inside their head? Sure it would. But, this is the real world. I would wager a bet that for many of these individuals the calls to "Choose Happiness" do far more harm than good and often contribute to the negative stigma surrounding mental illness. In other words, they alienate individuals and reinforce the isolation often experienced with a mood disorder.
For an individual with depression, likely the one thing they want more than anything in the world is to wake up and feel normal. Based on my experiences, very few people enjoy opening their eyes each morning only to be greeted by the heaviness and isolation of depression. There are constant reminders to these individuals that they are different, they are not normal and that it is not ok to feel depressed. Mental illness, such as depression, carries a deeply negative stigma and being diagnosed with a mood disorder is not something most people share with others. Instead, once someone receives such a diagnosis, they often keep it a secret and carry it with them in shame. Yet diagnoses such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer or respiratory disease don't carry that same level of negative stigma and shame. Maybe that's just because things like diabetes, heart disease, cancer and respiratory disease are more common and more dangerous than mental illnesses such as depression, right? Wrong. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death for individuals ages 10-34 and the 4th leading cause of death for those aged 35-54 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2016). The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that 90% of those who die by suicide have an underlying mental illness (National Alliance on Mental Illness, 2016).
Let those numbers and statistics sink in. We are talking about individuals with a diagnosis that is very prevalent, very debilitating and can also be deadly. Yet, the message our society often sends these individuals is that THEY are the problem, they are not normal and they simply need to "Choose Happy." Being reminded to "Choose Happiness" over and over again seems to be akin to telling the depressed person to "Get Over it" or "Just be Normal." Maybe, for some people, those bright and cheerful memes are actually quite painful.
Do I think everyone should stop sharing the memes in question? No. Of course not. For many people, they provide a bright spot and a useful reminder to change their perspective. But, maybe before sharing such a meme, take a moment and reflect on the people in your life who may be suffering silently from a mood disorder. Remember that the statistics I have shared are only based on those individuals who have sought treatment for a mood disorder. There are likely far more individuals suffering in complete silence, afraid or unsure of how to access support. Chances are that you personally know at least one of the more than 20 million people in the country who have such a diagnosis. How can you best support them? How can you help to break down some of the barriers for them? How can you help to get rid of the negative stigma associated with mental illness? What if your message to them conveyed that it was ok for them to be themselves? What if your message conveyed total acceptance and unconditional support and didn't put pressure on them to "Choose Happiness?" What if your message conveyed that you still choose them, no matter how they are feeling?
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 10 leading causes of death by age group, United States - 2014. (n.d.) Retrieved July 25, 2016 from http://www.cdc.gov/injury/images/lc-charts/leading_causes_of_death_age_group_2014_1050w760h.gif
National Alliance on Mental Illness. Mental health facts in america. (n.d). Retrieved July 25, 2016 from http://www.nami.org/NAMI/media/NAMI-Media/Infographics/GeneralMHFacts.pdf
National Institute of Mental Health. Any mood disorder among adults. (n.d) Retrieved July 25, 2016 from http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/prevalence/any-mood-disorder-among-adults.shtml
About Changing Perspectives
I often find myself encouraging people to consider changing their perspective or reframe the way in which they view things. This blog is an extension of that practice and is also an opportunity for me to write from a number of different perspectives including clinician, educator, mother, friend and supervisor. Blog topics are also quite varied and changeable. Topics explored include, but are certainly not limited to, grief, parenting, health and wellness and relationships. Join me and explore a number of changing perspectives!