“That’s life!”. This may not sound like the kind of advice someone should give anyone struggling with adversity however, consider its meaning for a moment. As a teacher for the past 14 years I have noticed a shift in children’s mental health awareness and complaints. When I started teaching in 2002 rarely did I have students knock on my door in the midst of a full blown panic attack or to inform me that they have been diagnosed with anxiety. Yet, today and increasingly over the past 5 years this is what I have seen. Students who feel fear, panic and worry in stressful situations and their anxieties affect their behaviour and thoughts on a daily basis, interfering with their home, school and social life is becoming an increasing phenomenon in our society.
Labels determine behaviour
My concern is that our children are less able (or willing) to cope under stressful conditions and feel there is something wrong with them if they feel this way. How do we respond? Too many adults respond by desperately trying to label this experience as a disorder. Labelling theory suggests that labels determine people’s behaviour leading inevitably to a self-fulfilling prophecy for many children. What does that label do to that child? They grow up believing that the reason they can’t cope is because they suffer from anxiety – they have an excuse when they don’t make it to school, when they withdraw from society and behave in inappropriate ways. Yet, my own teenage years were undoubtedly the most stressful and anxious filled years of my life, but I was never diagnosed with anxiety. If I was a teenager today living with a father who suffered strokes on a near daily basis, who I injected with insulin 4 times a day on top of a two year horrendous bullying ordeal there is no doubt a doctor would diagnose me with anxiety and send me away with some medication to reduce my heart rate and help me cope. Yes the medication will make you feel better but do we want our children to become reliant on pills to cope with everyday problems and to put it bluntly, life?
Wanting a quick fix?
My answer to that question is no. I want to teach children in today’s society to understand that feeling anxious, worried, scared and fearful are all part and parcel of life and that it is ok. Negative emotions are just as important as positive emotions and the key is to learn. In childhood children need to take time to get to know themselves and learn what makes them scared, anxious and fearful. The next step they need to learn is how to cope in these difficult situations and this is where positive psychology plays its part and the reason I love this field so much. Positive psychology interventions can help children (and adults) cope with their emotions and retrain their brain so they feel less anxious over time. The interventions are simple to use and often take up very little time or effort yet I find people are more resistant towards this method of coping and prefer the doctor, diagnosis, medication route instead. Why is that? Is it because they have a quick fix?
Teaching our children to cope
If we can teach our children to cope with life’s up and downs using techniques they can use over and over again that will enable them to live a more fulfilled and happy life then why don’t we? Techniques such as, teaching children about mindfulness meditation (I would recommend HeadSpace as a good starting point for beginners), practicing gratitude to help children stop and reflect on the good things rather than the bad (writing down your 3 best things of the day three times a week is a great way to start), practising optimism (writing about your best possible future self for 20 minutes can have a sustained impact on your levels of optimism), and simply encouraging children to get outside, exercise and appreciate beauty can help our children cope with feelings of anxiety.
An internal medicine cabinet
It is our job as adults to teach our children that life is hard at times, that’s life unfortunately, but provide them with simple to use techniques they can draw upon during adversity to enable them to cope. As a result our children will feel more confident in themselves and feel less reliant on medication because in effect they have created their very own little medicine cabinet inside themselves that once practiced and learned will never run dry.
About the Author: Katie Small graduated with a Masters in Applied Positive Psychology from the University of East London in 2014. Katie’s passion is to teach teenagers about the power of positive psychology and how it can enable human beings to thrive. Katie is an Assistant Principal at Liverpool Life Sciences UTC.
‘We Are The Positive Psychology People’