- The goal of raising healthy resilient children is bipartisan, apolitical, and indivisible. Tweet This
- The least healthy option for children is an institutional daycare, which elevates stress hormone levels, and leads to aggression, behavioral problems, and anxiety in school-age children. Tweet This
- Children need mentally healthy parents and a childhood where technology is regulated. Tweet This
Editor’s Note: The following essay is adapted from the author’s speech at The Alliance for Responsible Citizenship’s (ARC) 2023 Conference in London.
The causes of the epidemic of mental illness in children and adolescents are multi-variable. The solution is a puzzle with many pieces and many players. There is a narrative that our children are doomed, and all is lost, but as a social worker, psychoanalyst, and author of parent guidance books, I believe in a more hopeful narrative. I spoke recently at The Alliance For Responsible Citizenship (ARC) conference in London on this more hopeful narrative that will require every player in society to step up to the challenge of turning this mental health crisis around.
Before we can solve the problem, we need to understand its origins. I published a research paper through ARC that contains both the origins and solutions, and I will summarize that paper in this article.
Children are not born resilient; they are born neurologically and emotionally fragile and have irreducible needs if they are to become mentally healthy and responsible adults. Age 0-3 is a critical period of brain development where children need attachment security as a foundation for future mental health. Mothers serve a unique biological function in this period. Through their physical and emotional presence, they regulate children’s emotions from moment to moment by soothing them when they are in distress, bufferingthem from stress that is toxic to a young child’s brain, and providing them with a sense of safety and security in the world. Only after three years of age can a child internalize a feeling of security that helps them cope with stress in the future.
The second critical window of development is 9-25 years of age or adolescence, where children again need their parents to help them to regulate their emotions, and help them to process their feelings and experiences as they transition from childhood into adulthood. So more is more. The more parents can be there physically and emotionally from ages 0-3 and 9-25, the greater the chance their children will be able to cope with adversity in the future.
Children need mentally healthy parents who are self-aware, sensitive, and empathic, can regulate their own emotions, are resilient to stress, and do not see their children as the problem. Although schizophrenia and bipolar disorder can be passed down genetically, anxiety, depression, and ADHD are passed down generationally or through the inheritance of acquired characteristics. This means that when parents have not mourned and resolved their own past losses and traumas, they often pass mental illness down to their children. It is critical that parents take responsibility for their part in their children’s mental health.
Children need stability and community. Although not all children have the ideal of two loving married parents, we need to be able to talk about that ideal family form to understand how to make the less-than-ideal better. Extended family and faith-based communities are critical to children’s mental health and even more so if those children grow up in an alternative family structure.
Children need a childhood where technology is regulated. There is a considerable amount of research on the negative impact of smartphones and social media, as well as video games on the developing brain. They stimulate the pleasure centers of the brain in such a way that can easily lead to addiction. They create a culture of perfectionism and comparison and create more virtual connections than real ones at a time when children need real relationships.
Turning this epidemic around requires all hands on deck. There is a role for parents, communities, educators, healthcare providers, employers, and government to play.
Parents are the most important part of the equation and bear the primary responsibility for their children. Parents need to seek help from therapists, parent guidance experts, and faith-based leaders. They need to make better choices and make the sacrifices necessary to raise their own children when they can, prioritize their own time with their children, and secondarily rely upon extended family or kinship bonds or stable, consistent alternative attachment figures. The least healthy option for children is an institutional day care, which, according to research, elevates stress hormone levels, and leads to aggression, behavioral problems, and anxiety in children when they get to school age. There is no point in beating around the bush—you need to get your own house in order before you have children and make choices that prioritize children’s well-being over your own personal and material desires.
Communities, whether faith-based or local community centers, also have a role to play in providing affordable and accessible mental health coaching and parenting support groups. These services could help parents understand the underlying causes of behavioral symptoms in children rather than labeling and medicating away children’s distress, which only causes more distress. It is through empathy and understanding a child’s behavior that sustainable change can happen.
Schools have a role to play by focusing on right or social-emotional development in the early years rather than cognitive learning. Research shows social emotional learning or play-based experiential learning paves the way to sustainable cognitive learning later on. Children who are forced to learn their numbers and letters too early often struggle with frustration tolerance and emotional regulation later in their education. Schools can also reduce the pressure on children academically in middle and high school, redefining success as love of learning and robust self-esteem, and leaning into children’s strengths rather than on grades alone. Schools can promote later school start times for adolescents who suffer from a condition called sleep wake phase delay (which means they produce melatonin later in the evening and feel sleep pressure later) so they can get more of the important sleep they need. And lastly, they can take responsibility for students on and off campus with a code of ethical behavior that demands zero bullying tolerance and social media hygiene.
Healthcare providers, particularly pediatricians, are the first line of defense for a family in crisis. They should stop labeling children as the problem and stop medicating away the symptoms of their distress; instead, they should help parents to understand that parents and family dynamics are at the root of mental disorders in children. They can make the appropriate referrals to play and psycho-dynamic therapists who get to the root causes of the symptoms, rather than psychiatrists and medication, which should be a last resort. Lastly, pediatricians can educate parents about the importance of breastfeeding, being physically and emotionally present from age 0-3, attachment security, and the dangers of institutional day care.
Employers have a role to play in allowing parents the space and time they need to be present for their children and to invest in their own mental health. Giving employees who are primary attachment figures paid parental leave of one year, adapting work schedules and norms to embrace part-time work for the next two years, and providing options of flexible hours and hybrid working arrangements is critical, as is creating a corporate culture where employees take their paid leave rather than fear that it will sideline their careers long-term. Lastly, encouraging career pauses to parents raising children with the option of returning to work at a later time, as well as providing reentry points for women who choose to take longer breaks after having children.
Governments need to support primary-attachment parents financially when they do not have resources available from employers. All mothers should be given the option to stay home for a full year and supported with resources so they can work part-time for another two years until their children are out of the 0-3 window because the costs of neglecting families are far greater in the long run. Flexible spending money can be provided to families to use in any way that is best for their family, rather than providing state-funded institutional care. These stipends could be used by mothers to stay at home, pay a family member, or pay a nanny. Families should be supported through tax benefits and incentives to raise children in two-parent married families to prioritize family stability. Governments can hold employers accountable regarding their parental leave policies, and set minimum leave at a level that ensures children form a secure attachment to their primary attachment figure.
In addition, governments can protect children from exposure to substances and online sexual content that jeopardizes their mental well-being. They can provide stricter regulations regarding the legalization of drugs and alcohol, as well as online and print content that glorifies drug and alcohol use. Legal psychopharmacological drugs are overprescribed, and governments can play a role in limiting and regulating that abuse. Last but not least, governments can make mental health services affordable and accessible to all who do not have resources.
To conclude, it is only by looking directly at and acknowledging a problem that we have a chance of addressing it or changing the outcome. When we avoid the pain in the present, we cause more pain in the future for society. We can reverse the narrative that our children are doomed to generations of mental illness and emotional fragility, but this will require that we all work together and take responsibility for our part in creating a brighter future for our children. The goal of raising healthy resilient children is bipartisan, apolitical, and indivisible, and one that is achievable and attainable if we work together toward the common goal.