Amy Pybus: Why parents must walk the talk
EASTHAMPTON — If there’s something that I’ve learned from working with children, it’s this. There are certain things parents can affect in their children, such as good behavior, or a sense of gratitude vs. entitlement. But I’ve also learned that people are who they are. If they are born with anxiety, depression, addiction, or any other host of invisible illnesses, a parent can’t just “fix” it.
But there are many things parents can do, and the way they handle their child’s struggle can be a great support (or sadly, a horrible detriment). I’ve always thought that mental health screening should be part of a child’s regular physical exam, and include necessary follow-up treatments.
In fact, my husband and I tell our kids you should have a therapist visit once or twice a year, just like a regular checkup with your doctor. We’ve tried to teach them that their brain is just as important as their body. When you’re sick, you see a doctor and they help you fix it. When you’re mentally sick, you see a therapist.
But our culture doesn’t view mental health care in that way. And we end up where we are now, wringing our hands over how much we need a better mental health care system, when those are the very programs that we have allowed to be decimated over the last 20 years.
There are many ways for parents to address their child’s state of mind. Obviously, get help from a professional. But how do you incorporate mindfulness into your daily life? It doesn’t have to be complicated.
The easiest way to connect with your kids is to break away from the screens and get out of the house. As long as you’re inside, you will fall into your normal routines that probably don’t include spending time engaged with each other instead of the chores.
Everyone talks about getting their kids in touch with nature. Walk to the store to get the milk instead of going in the car. Take a hike. Or if you really can’t find time, include your kids while you work in the yard (all-season — they can shovel snow just as easily as they can rake).
They might not want to do the work, but promise a reward, do whatever you have to do get them out there, and be physically close without a lot of distractions. Give them the opportunity to be with you quietly, let their mind work and eventually they’ll tell you what they’re thinking about. Your most important job at that moment — and I can’t stress this enough — is to shut up and listen.
Younger children love to do yoga. For years I’ve used Kira Willey’s yoga-for-kids CD “Dance for the Sun” and my day care kids have always loved it. But it doesn’t have to be yoga — just put on some music and kids will come running.
The most direct way to teach mindfulness is to share your own practice with your kids. If you do any relaxation exercises or meditation, teach it to them. Involve them in whatever you to do relax. That could be any hobby, or if you’re a more physical person, take them jogging, practice martial arts or just shoot hoops in the driveway.
Your pre-teen or teenager might not want to hear it from you, but they will connect with a good book. If you are struggling with a specific issue, you can find age-appropriate books for any topic. The author might be saying the same thing you’ve been saying all along, but your child will engage with the book differently (i.e. they can listen to a stranger who seems like they’re talking directly to you, rather than Dad, who’s been nagging you for years).
If you aren’t comfortable with new age-y ways of doing things, find other quiet activities to do with your kids. Put a large puzzle out on a table and start putting it together over the course of the weekend. Read to them. When they get old enough that they don’t want to read with you anymore, set aside 15 minutes before bedtime where it’s just the two of you — no distractions at all — and just talk.
Ekhardt Tolle (“The Power of Now”) says we should be teaching kids how to meditate in school, and that it should be as important as reading and math. As I’m trying to get one son through middle school as painlessly as possible, and the other to calm down about MCAS, I realize how important this technique could be for them.
We can’t be in school, where kids face some of their biggest challenges. Practicing relaxation and meditation with your children brings stillness and confidence to them in the place where they need it most.
Most importantly, if you want your children to live it, you have to demonstrate it. The way you want your children to behave is how you should behave. This is really where you have to walk the talk because kids see through us like glass. They won’t learn it if they don’t see it.
Amy Pybus of Easthampton writes on family life issues in a column that appears on the second Thursday of the month. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and blogs at www.sittingonthebaby.com.