Ask the expert: modern life, anxiety and our children: what they really need...
Modern life, anxiety and our children: we discuss this incredibly meaty and topical subject with David Smallwood: psychotherapist at high profile institutions such as The Priory and Promises, published author, and Clinical Director of several high profile international clinics including the Kushnact Clinic in Switzerland. (Phew…!)
David’s account is refreshingly simple - modern life, he says, is increasingly taking away what we as a species crave and need the most: real human connection: that in his mind, is one of the central reasons why our children are increasingly struggling with mental health. We talk about everything from living in tribes, to Instagram, to Christmas presents, to what makes ‘a connection’, the power of groups and crucially what makes a child more likely to develop long term mental health issues….
**** Click here for the link to the podcast discussion (or search ‘Better Babies’ on all major podcast platforms) or read on for some of the key highlights… ****
So what do you think: is modern life creating more anxiety in us/our children or are we just talking about it more?
I think modern life does indeed give us more anxiety - although not with any intent! We know technology plays a major part - the question is more why does it play a part. The irony is that we have more ways to communicate and more information than ever before, but, we are more detached from people than we ever have been. Human beings need close interpersonal relationships, physical closeness and physical contact - we need one on one interactions as well as being part of a group. Electronic communication - even Skype - misses people’s reactions, micro facial features, body language and all the things that you even subconsciously pick up on in a one on one encounter.
But, why is this connection so important?
We have over three million years of living in accord with each other, essentially in tribes in order to survive. Tribal living, being part of something is as much a part of our DNA as the colour of our eyes. When we are outside of this, we start to run into problems. You can see this very clearly in animals. Animals that have been cast outside of the herd show it physically as it is a real threat to survival - modern life is doing the same to humans now on an unconscious level. Slowly but steadily our connection to other people has been eroded. There have been periods of time where this has reversed (during the two world wars for example where groups of people really came together, connected and collaborated - even when it was against a common enemy). Since 1945, however we have continued to drift further apart and this is increasingly affecting our children’s ability to connect and their long term mental health.
Is modern life distracting us from what our children really need?
Yes - it is actually surprisingly simple. Children need to be loved, accepted, shown compassion, made to feel safe in their environment and given opportunities for connection. We have become expert at giving children things to make them feel better. Children used to have one or two Christmas presents not thirty and still expecting more! We also have a tendency to put our children on pedestals - telling them constantly how brilliant they are to boost their esteem - this can actually set them up for trouble down the line.
How do you approach it so you don't put a child on a pedestal? How do you practically build a child’s self worth it in a healthy way?
Encouragement and building self worth is fundamental but how you do it is key. Telling a child that they are wanted, that they are loved and cared for is much more important than telling them how ‘good’ they are. Telling a child how valuable they as a person are rather than praising for achievement is the way to go.
Modern life rewards and praises ‘the wrong things’ and this can cause issues:
Praising children for success is dangerous because the boundaries always change and modern life happens and can shock a child when reality sets in. Donald Trump is a prime example of a person who cannot accept anything other than praise. If you are always told ‘you’re the best’ you are set up to fail as life happens.
The instant generation: unrealistic expectations that breed anxiety and disappointment:
We have certainly become a society of instant gratification - if you order a book online now - you expect it the next day. When we don't get things ‘instantly’ and we express frustration with it our children believe this is ‘the norm’. We are unconsciously setting up an expectation in our children and perpetuating impatience and desire for immediate gratification.
Can a child be born with a predisposition towards anxiety?
Yes I think so. Being born with a higher level of sensitivity is one of the key factors that gives a child a predisposition towards long term anxiety and mental health problems and it seems to be becoming more common place.
What does it mean to be ‘more sensitive’?
When we were part of tribes and living in dangerous places, different people within the tribes had different roles. There were the hunter gatherers, the cooks, the leaders and there were the watchers or the ‘look-outs’. These people were typically very sensitive to their surroundings - they notice everything almost instinctively. In my experience, the average person who has a problem with anxiety and/or addiction has this higher level of sensitivity. A ‘hyper awareness’. People like this can feel the environment in a room before anyone has even said anything.
Why does this lead to a greater chance of chronic mental health conditions/addiction etc later in life?
When you are a more sensitive person, you have to develop a ‘coping mechanism’ to deal with the highs and lows that modern life inevitably throws at you - to essentially ‘medicate it’. For example, feeling bad and using sugar to feel better. This leads to short term fix which needs to be repeated over and over again and then causes its own issues. These coping mechanisms can come in many forms: shopping, drugs, alcohol, work, exercise etc.
Awareness is the key:
Every parent does the best for their children within their own abilities, however, for a child who is particularly sensitive - even the best intentions may not be the right thing for that child so awareness of this as a parent is a powerful tool. A sensitive child will be particularly vulnerable to anything that pushes them ‘outside of the herd’. This will start the coping mechanism. ‘Coping’ can be anything from people pleasing, to achievement, to sugar or even drugs and alcohol later down the road. Essentially this sets the start of medicating the distress from this detachment.
We need to make a distinction if a child is sensitive:
Sensitivity is both a blessing and a curse. People who are very attuned make great negotiators and often have great people skills for example. It’s just being aware of it. For example, if you realise your child is sensitive boarding school at a very young age can be particularly traumatising. Children also quickly learn these coping mechanisms but they often come at the cost of pushing down genuine emotions and that is when you sow the seeds for serious mental health issues down the line.
As a parent: what do you do if you have a sensitive child?
Encouraging genuine expression of emotions. Acknowledging them, being open and accepting is powerful. Helping a child find a healthy coping mechanism is hugely beneficial as people have to learn to exist in the world regardless of their sensitivity.
What does a ‘healthy’ coping mechanism look like practically speaking?
This is where real connection comes in - the ultimate coping mechanism. As a recovering addict myself, finding AA for me was when I found ‘my tribe. It was a group where I felt an immediate connection in my limbic (unconscious) system. It almost doesn't matter what is said within the group - as soon as I am there my stress levels go down and I feel genuinely connected.
What makes a ‘real’ connection?
It doesn't of course have to be AA, it is a group (however big or small) where you can feel safe, understood, identify with the other people within it. With AA for example people come from all walks of life, all different economic status/backgrounds, but we are all similar on an emotional level and that is what matters.
How do you help your child ‘connect’ with a group?
It’s all about avoiding isolation, so fostering connection with other children in a responsible way is actually the best way. Being children, having fun and not in a competitive way. Going back to basics - providing your child lots of opportunities to connect and play with other children, doing things that they actually enjoy - rather than things that we think they should enjoy. Adults can have a tendency to think that children don't know what they want - that is simply not the case. Taking the time to be sensitive and listening (verbal and non verbal cues) to your child is key.
Children have strong views and awareness right from the start: realising this is another powerful tool as a parent:
Some people don't realise that even newborn babies are super aware. Newborns for example can pick out their mother’s milk from that of ten others. This means they have a memory. Ok, they may not have long term recall of that memory at first, but it does exist. This means things that happen in early development have a real impact in the way they develop as people. Children are particularly sensitive to their caregivers. A great example of this in practise is the still face experiment - click here to watch. This shows the level of distress in a child from even a few moments of the major caregiver ignoring them.
Modern lives make it easy not to meet our kids ‘needs’:
We have a lot of pressure from all angles as parents - we are pulled in many directions and there are high expectations to be brilliant at everything - that can make meeting our child’s needs more difficult. Particularly in terms of connection. Children need human contact and attention - if a child is crying, it is because it is trying to tell us something, that it needs our attention and it is trying to communicate - particularly if it is non verbal. You cannot ‘spoil’ a child by cuddling them too much and to me the notion of letting a child cry deliberately (which is advocated by some) is madness and can be dangerous. They are crying to signal distress and leaving them can be damaging.
Parental guilt: why does it seem to be so prominent?
Firstly - ignore a lot of what you see on TV/social media and keep it simple. Once again, what a child really needs is connection, love and acceptance - this is everything you need. It doesn't have to be so complicated. So, if you are conscious of your child’s needs and you provide them with contact and connection there is no need for guilt. In fact by feeling so guilty you are risking transmitting anxiety to your child so you need to put that aside.
Guilt does seem to be everywhere, especially amongst parents, is that because society pressures us to be ‘perfect’? Setting us up to fail?
Well, guilt is feeling bad about something you have done wrong, however, in a lot of cases what we are feeling is in fact shame. Shame is not feeling ‘good enough’ about yourself. Why can this be so pervasive? This can be multigenerational ie. passed through your ancestors. That shame informs how you do life. ‘Catholic guilt’ is a prime example of this - so often you’re already pre programmed with it.
How do you deal with this? Especially if you don't want to pass it on to your own kids.
The first step is awareness and to look at what happened in your own childhood. If you’re constantly feeling not good enough as a parent - instead of looking and focusing on the child (and what you’re doing/not doing there) look at yourself - what has happened to me to push you to this default setting? If you can trace this back you can do something about it. Once you’re aware you can deal with it and seek out a therapist. Dealing with your own issues can be a powerful way of stopping the transmission. So instead of critiquing and judging your own feelings examine why. Being aware of your own thoughts in a non judgemental way is powerful and can actually help your child. After all - when it comes to children: what we see we learn and what we learn we become.
The family unit looks very different to the 2.4 nuclear family that used to exist has changed - how do we stop transmission of anxiety and foster connection under any definition of ‘family’?
The first stage of avoiding a trap is to know there is a trap. If you know that a child is sensitive and you have a family set up that is different from the 2.4 convention the trouble can come when you get judged by others, if you’re sensitive you’ll pick it up very quickly. A child (particularly a sensitive one) hearing criticism of their parents can be damaging. If a child gets distressed by this then the key is too give them the opportunity to process and express that distress. The worst thing to do is to bury it or pretend it isn't happening. Be open about difference, embrace it, don't brush it under the carpet. Adoption is a good example - the way this is treated has evolved. Previously people were encouraged not to talk about it - this has thankfully shifted and people are encouraged to talk about it from the start, as soon as the child is able to communicate. Acknowledging it in a positive way. The other thing to do is to focus on it from the child’s perspective. Paul Sunderland talks about adoption, depression and addiction. The key is to focus on the child’s experience rather than your own experience of adoption. What do they need? Keep it simple: when they can express themselves simply ask them. It’s about open communication and listening to that child without our own prejudice.
We have talked a lot about how sensitivity can be a key risk factor - How do you know if you have a more sensitive child? What are the things to look for?
The first thing to do is watch them, be aware, the earlier the better. If a child reacts to loud noises, is reactive in general and can be quiet and withdrawn you may well have a sensitive child. Kids don't have fight or flight they have freeze - if that is happening regularly, and they are quite reactive to noise/changes then they are probably sensitive. Awareness of this as a parent is a great tool. Particularly early because as a child gets older they will likely adopt coping mechanisms for this sensitivity. For example a quiet and withdrawn small child can become the exact opposite as an older child as the coping mechanism is built up. Take comedians for example, often underneath the humour and showmanship they can be highly sensitive people prone to depression. It’s a great opportunity to be able to watch a child when they are very young before the coping mechanism has built to get a sense of their true nature.
So: what’s the quick summary?!
Be aware of your child’s nature. Watch how they are from the start - awareness that you child is sensitive is a great head start supporting them through modern life as these are the children that may have a greater disposition to future mental health issues.
As a parent we all try our best, there is no manual or instruction book, we work this out by trial and error (and there will be error), however, children are human beings so just because they are young and perhaps can vocalise their thoughts, feelings and preferences doesnt mean that they dont have them. Children from birth have both awareness and memory. As a parent sensitivity and reaction to this is a powerful thing.
All a child really needs is to feel loved, wanted, understood and connected. They also need physical contact and you cant spoil a child with too much of that.
Real non competitive physical connection with other children is also really important. Isolation is the enemy. Both physically and mentall. As humans it is in our DNA to be part of a group and part of a tribe. As parents providing our children with opportunities to do this in a way that they enjoy is hugely powerful.
As a parent - you are doing a great job and have no need for guilt if you are sensitive to your child’s real needs and you foster love and connection for them.
If you are feeling persistently anxious/guilty as a parent consider why and strongly consider digging in to what is going on here for you. Do not ignore it, it doesnt mean there is something wrong with you, it may even turn out to be a gift that you haven’t discovered yet. Strong persistent feelings and anxiety like this get passed on to our children which is partly how they pass through generations. A bit of self reflection and seeking help can stop this in its tracks. Doing this is actually helping both you and your children.
For more from David check out his book here or reach out to us with any questions which we can send on to him: firstname.lastname@example.org.