In 2017, suicidal behaviour among teens reached a worrying state, increasing substantially since 2012. According to the National Health and Morbidity Survey 2017, for adolescents aged between 13 to 17 in Malaysia, the following percentage experience the respective tendencies:-
- 18.3% for depression
- 39.7% for anxiety
- 10% for suicide ideation
- 9.6% for stress
Focusing on social and mental problems in Malaysian children, Positive Parenting – an educational programme initiated by the Malaysian Paediatric Association (MPA) in 2000, held a media dialogue to share what parents can do in their efforts in raising emotionally strong and resilient children. The panel of experts comprised Dr Rajini Sarvananthan, a consultant developmental paediatrivian, Malaysian Paediatric Association; Dr Alvin Ng Lai Oon, a clinical psychologist, Malaysian Society of Clinical Psychology; and Mr Alexius Cheang, a behavioural psychologist. The dialogue was moderated by Datuk Dr Zulkifli Ismail, chairman of the Positive Parenting Management Committee.
Factors That Affect A Child’s Mental Well-Being
“Our society emphasises on IQ (Intelligence Quotient), but forget about EQ (Emotional Quotient),” points out Datuk Dr Zulkifli. This underlines one of the main factors that contribute to problems related to a child’s mental well-being.
The problems that a child or adolescent faces include issues with peers and family members. We may not be aware of it as a society but one of the key things that parents often engage in is social comparison. As stated by Mr Alexius Cheang, “There is almost an inbuilt expectation that a child is valued based on the grades they earn in school.” He adds, “But children offer a lot more variety in terms of potential. The reinforcement is on academics but their potential in other areas are forgotten.”
Other than societal expectations, there are also other factors. As pointed out by Zulkifli in his opening speech, “There are many factors that contribute to this problem, including abuse, unstable family, unrealistic expectations, bad peer influence, poverty and many more. Not many young children are able to manage the everyday bumps in the road of life since they are fragile and easily affected by stress and pressure from their surroundings.”
Thus, to help children overcome stress and pressure, one of the things that parents can do is to help their child or children build resilience.
Relationship Between Mental Health and Resilience
According to Dr Alvin Ng, having resilience is knowing what to do and the ability to get up. “You might feel stressed, you can’t be cool all the time, but you know what to do and how to get yourself out of a problem,” he explains. “If you don’t know what to do, know how to ask for help,” says Ng. it means knowing how to solve problems.
Ng explains that mental illness is the same as physical health – you many not be able to function well when you are mentally unhealthy. Thus, you need to have good mental health to be resilient.
The 7 Cs Of Resilience
While the disturbing statistics above display results pertaining to adolescents aged 13-17, the skills to build resilience should be nurtured from young. Positive parenting experts recommend the 7 Cs of resilience for raising emotionally healthy kids:-
- Competence – Teaching them how to handle a situation effectively.
- Confidence – Nurturing belief in their own abilities
- Connection – Developing close ties between family and community
- Character – Developing a solid set of morals and values to determine right from wrong and to demonstrate a caring attitude towards others
- Contribution – Helping them understand the importance of personal contribution and how it can serve a purpose and motivation
- Coping – Developing skills to deal with stress
- Control – Helping children realise that if they can control the outcomes of their decision, they have the ability to bounce back
In addition to that, Dr Ng also recommends focusing on compassion, which can be categorised under “Character” as well. Says Ng, “Guilt and shame are very big factors on why children are depressed.”
Why It Is Important To Focus On The 7 Cs Of Resilience
Dr Rajini Sarvananthan, who has a particular interest in preschool children with developmental disabilities, points out that these days we as parents seem to want our kids to grow up too fast. However, this may not be good as it hinders them from naturally developing their abilities.
“We are depriving them of developing their skills with shortcuts, for example with walkers to teach babies how to walk,” says Dr Rajini. As she explained, this could be detrimental as the baby will not experience “mistakes” that are important for their development. Mistakes are important as the child can learn how to and that you can bounce back from any setbacks.
Cheung agrees with this notion. As he said, “One of the key issues is that parents swoop in a bit too quick to solve problems that children can go through.” He aks, “Do we guide kids on how to do something? When we ask a child to do something, how can we expect a child to be a master in anything?” Cheung points out that even adults take a long time to master a certain skill. “Even we took a long time, with guidance around us and went to school for many years before being experts in our fields,” he says. Thus, it can be said that by letting children make mistakes, we are helping them build Confidence, Competence and Coping mechanisms.
This shows how important it is to focus on the 7 Cs of resilience in order to build this resilience in kids. “Sometimes, let them lead and see how we can guide them to be better adults in the world,” suggest Cheung. “Find your place in the world. When you have meaning in the world, it creates resilience and buffers against depression and stress.”
How To Help Build Resilience In Children
“Just like relationships between partners, with kids they need to guess what parents want unless they are shown and guided through it,” says Cheung. “We have to build up strength within each child so that it can apply to a variety of situations. Guidance, open dialogue between ourselves and our children is key.”
Whenever a child experiences an uncomfortable or difficult situation, they may feel anxious because they don’t know what to do. Cheung recommends encouraging the child to explore this feeling and to work together to figure out the situation. He actually exclaims that difficult situations are a great opportunity to learn. Parents should take advantage of such situations to apply positive parenting:-
- It’s a fantastic opportunity for growth and to learn new skills by learning what to do in that situation
- It’s an opportunity to guide and be more in tune with what they are feeling at that moment
- You can ask questions like “Are you feeling anxious?”or “How can I help?” Or, “If you don’t know, we can work together to figure out the situation.”
- Take this opportunity to explain and inculcate what you believe as a family. Explain to them about how the media only depicts the good stuff, providing misconception about the real world. However, in reality, everyday life is not like that.
Building Resilience In Children In The Modern World
Cheung says that the younger generation face a very complicated world these day. They don’t have clear cut rules as there are many gray areas in society these day. Clear cut role models to demonstrate in black and white about what is good versus bad are also lacking. It’s just how the world is these days and it can be difficult for kids and teenagers to navigate. That’s one reason why it’s important to inculcate the 7Cs of resilience in children.
Meanwhile, Dr Ng recommends being a model to your children. Show them how to manage anxiety through your own behaviour. “Remind them that we all make mistakes, and that we don’t have to be shameful about it,” says Ng. “We don’t have to dramatise it. Just show them that it’s ok.”
Adds Cheung, “If you have any problems with your spouse, work it out in front of the kids. Show them how it can be solved.” This will help them see how to rationalise and understand any situation.
And as Dr Rajini puts it: “Culture affects parenting styles.” Culture, of course, is inculcated mostly through observation. “You do have to adjust your parenting styles along the way. However, having firm boundaries is very important.” Being able to work within the restrictions of these boundaries will help your child develop problem-solving skills and build resilience.
All the experts agree that emotional intelligence is what gets you through in life.
“IQ may be important for getting you your first job,” says Ng. “But after that it’s all EQ. Human Resource managers will tell you they look at how you carry yourself after that,” he explains, citing a quote from a professional working in HR.