These days, some parents tend to overemphasise the academic achievements of their child. They overlook the need for a comprehensive approach in raising children and focusing on different aspects of development.
As a result, their child may be less emotionally resilient and his mental health may be affected. He may get stressed easily when facing a big exam or become too anxious when meeting new people.
Many facets of the modern world, such as busy parents, overexposure to gadgets, and lack of real world interaction, are also linked to this issue.
Positive Parenting Management Committee chairman Datuk Dr Zulkifli Ismail highlighted the statistics on mental health from the 2015 National Health and Morbidity Survey (NHMS).
Among adolescents aged 13 to 17, the prevalence was 18.3% for depression, 39.7% for anxiety, 10% for suicide ideation, and 9.6% for stress.
“This means that two out of five teenagers in Malaysia suffer from anxiety, while one out of five are depressed,” he said.
He also stressed that not many young children are able to manage failures in life, as they are fragile and easily affected by stress and pressure from their surroundings.
Hence, it is crucial to equip them with the necessary skills to face these challenges and to nurture resilience in them.
The root of the problem
Different factors contribute to mental or socio-emotional problems in children, such as abuse, unstable family ties, bad peer influence and many more.
Developmental paediatrician Dr Rajini Sarvananthan stated there may be different and additional stressors in different socio-economic groups.
For example, children in middle-income families may have issues meeting family expectations to perform well in a school setting, while children in lower-income families may have to deal with a lack of attention from parents who are working multiple jobs.
Alexius Cheang, a behavioural psychologist, highlighted that parents tend to compare their child to others.
He said: “The value that parents put on their children is on the grades that they earn in school because it’s easy to compare, but we forget about their other capabilities and potential.”
C is for resilience
Resilience plays a major role in the mental well-being of individuals.
Clinical psychologist Associate Prof Dr Alvin Ng Lai Oon explained there are several aspects of resilience.
Resilience is the ability and knowledge of a person on what he can do when he falls, and knowing how to get up.
A resilient individual also knows what he is feeling, and what to do about it.
The whole idea of resilience is to know how to solve problems, be it emotional, physical, cognitive or behavioural.
To build resilience in younger children, Dr Rajini stressed that parents need to focus on developing competence, confidence and connection.
These traits are part of the 7 C’s Model of Resilience advocated by the American Academy of Pediatrics, which also includes character, contribution, coping and control.
Some parents prefer to provide shortcuts to their child, but Dr Rajini cautioned, “By doing things for them, we’re already depriving them of being competent and developing their own skills.”
Looking at the rising trend of mental health issues in children today, there may be a generational difference in terms of resilience.
Assoc Prof Ng said it depends on their upbringing. “I do see differences in the way we think, but we also need to understand that we are in a different era now. Our exposures and expectations are different,” he explained.
The digital era also brings different challenges to parents, like the need for screen time limits or internet safety awareness.
Thus, it matters how parents tailor their approach in raising their child.
There are many ways to instil resilience and grit in children. One way is to learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable, shared Cheang.
He elaborated: “Every time you step out of your comfort zone, it is an opportunity for growth. Every time you learn a new skill to deal with the situation, your comfort zone becomes wider.”
Balancing intelligence (IQ) and emotional intelligence (EQ) is also crucial for children in facing the challenges of the modern world.
Cheang admits that parents cannot resist comparing their children, because they want the best for their kids.
Hence, to achieve this balance, it is important for parents to find a way to communicate and discuss with their child about any issues they are facing.
Parents also have to realise that in the big picture, emotional intelligence is actually the key for translating actual success in life.
“Academic achievement gets you the first job, but after that it’s all EQ,” he remarked.
Helicopter or tiger?
Various parenting styles, such as helicopter parents, tiger parents, and authoritative parenting, are often said to affect resilience and other traits in children.
But is there a best parenting style?
Assoc Prof Ng pointed out that parenting is something that is dynamic and should not be fixed. Even balancing between being strict and permissive is very difficult.
Parenting should be flexible, and to set a specific and rigid style is not the best approach.
Cheang gave the example of different generations staying in the same house, which can lead to different parenting styles that may give rise to conflict.
For him, the key is to have that understanding between husband and wife, as well as grandparents and anyone else in the same household, so that everyone is on the same page when dealing with the child to avoid confusion.
Dr Rajini agreed that parenting plays a big role on how children develop.
Sharing her experience of raising her eldest child in Britain under the care of a nanny and her youngest child back in Malaysia with her family, she said that experiences in early childhood make a difference to how children develop.
She also pointed that parenting styles also have to do with culture in terms of what is acceptable or not.
“There must be firm boundaries, a lot of love in parenting, and a lot of communication, even though your child cannot speak,” she concluded.
Dr Zulkifli, Dr Rajini, Cheang and Assoc Prof Ng were speaking at a media dialogue session organised by the Positive Parenting Programme, an expert-driven educational programme initiated by the Malaysian Paediatric Association in 2000.
Dr Zulkifli hoped that the session managed to underscore how parenting plays a major role in raising resilient children, who are strong, both emotionally and physically, to face various challenges in the modern world.