Using The Small Moments With Your Kids
Growing up, my family took some pretty epic vacations – from visiting Disney World to going to various major league baseball stadiums across the country, our summers were always guaranteed to include one week away from home experiencing new places and meeting new people. While I look back fondly at those memories, what I value more now, especially the older I get, are the little moments that my parents used to intentionally connect with my brother and me. It was on the drive to school each morning that my mom and I really got to talk to each other about what was going on in my life or who I liked or who I was mad at or what I was worried about. It was around the dinner table each night that my parents would ask us questions about our days at school and just talk with us like friends. Those are opportunities I’m sure I took for granted as a teenager; I assumed that every family had those conversations, but now I realize that not nearly enough families spend that kind of quality time communicating with each other on a regular basis, and I understand that. Life is busy and chaotic and such a never-slowing stream of deadlines and appointments and responsibilities that it is sometimes hard to catch your breath, but it is in these moments of the monotonous and stressful every day that life really happens. Life is made up of infinitely more little moments than it is big, momentous occasions, and that’s why it is so important to use the everyday to connect with those around you, especially your children.
This issue of Redefined focuses largely on mental health, and it is in the small moments of everyday life that parents can really gauge how their children are doing and can learn what’s going on. This is so important! Not to be over dramatic, but according to the website save.org, suicide is the second leading cause of death among fifteen to twenty-four-year olds, worldwide. Depression and anxiety plague our society and contribute to physical and mental problems for their sufferers. Being able to recognize signs of a problem in your child can make the difference in how these issues may affect him or her. Dr. Kevin Armstrong, an Associate Professor of Psychology at Mississippi State and a member here at FBC, offers a lot of insight on how to use the everyday to make sure that your children are mentally healthy and are being taught how to engage the world around them. I asked Kevin when children become susceptible to anxiety and depression, and he explained that stress is a normal part of life for everyone, from conception through adulthood. Therefore, the goal of parenting isn’t determining how to create a stress-free environment for your children; rather, “parenting and teaching are often a sort of strategic stressing of kids in a supportive environment” so that “kids [are] appropriately challenged” and “can learn better ways of adapting to demands and environmental circumstances.” It’s actually this stress and learning how to adapt to it that fosters growth, so stress is not actually the problem. Learning how to cope with the unavoidable stressors of life is what is really important, and “many kids will benefit from receiving extra help in learning to deal with emotions.” It’s important for parents to allow their children to feel emotions and to express emotions openly in a supportive environment, but it’s also important for parents to model appropriate emotional responses. Being open with your children is a good first step to fostering healthy emotional reactions.
When it comes to determining how your child is doing, emotionally speaking, there is a great deal you can determine from their behavior, but it’s really important to know your child’s “normal” so that you can determine whether a significant change has occurred. This really goes back to the necessity of spending ample quality time as a family. Kevin offers a list of potential warning signs for which parents need to be aware: extended periods of negative affect (sadness, anger, fear, frustration, guilt), especially if this interferes with daily functioning and the child’s ability to accomplish ordinary tasks; a change in school performance; a change in sleeping or eating habits; an increase in wanting to be alone or an increase in spending a lot of time alone; an increase in statements that are negative about themselves, their world, or the future; a decrease in ability to enjoy things; and an inability to delay gratification for longer term gain (especially notable in older children). If there is a sudden and marked change in a child’s typical behavior, then there is a chance that the child is experiencing some sort of stressor for which his or her coping skills are not adequate.
If you do see any of these warning signs in your child, there is a host of options. First of all, Kevin suggests prayer. Rely on the One who created your child and who placed you in the role of caretaker to encourage and lead you in talking with your child and seeking further help. After seeking the Lord’s counsel, seek the counsel of others who you trust. Talk to a pastor or physician or a friend who is also a parent for support and guidance. The most important thing is not to be embarrassed by the need to ask for help; your child is more important than that. You should also do some investigation into the issue. If the change has occurred in school performance, contact your child’s teacher to glean some insight into what has been happening in the classroom, for instance. Once you’ve gotten more information, put together a plan for how to talk with your child and deal with the underlying cause. If this works, keep at it, but if it does not, try something different; just don’t stop trying altogether.
While many risk factors are beyond the control of parents, there are some that parents can control to mitigate the risks of depression for their children. Some of these include “lack of quality time with parents, allowing unsupervised time with inappropriate influences (tv, internet, unvetted friends), lack of quality playtime, family conflict, variable sleep schedules, inconsistency with rules and consequences, placing age-inappropriate demands on children, lack of support in purposefully developing a sense of self and mission as God’s child, and inappropriate emphasis on perfectionism instead of honoring God with excellence,” according to Kevin. It isn’t a bad idea to sit down with your spouse to assess how you are doing in each of these areas and to work out ways to improve. For example, perhaps it is really hard for you to make sure your kids go to bed at the same time every night, so maybe you and your spouse need to work out a better system or give up an extracurricular activity to ensure that your children are getting the recommended amount of sleep each night. Small changes can really help your family to maximize your time together and ensure healthy practices.
One family in our church who is already putting some of these ideas into practice is the Washburn family. Joel and Emily have three children, Riley (12), Olivia (10), and Sam (8). I actually live in the same neighborhood as the Washburns, and I wanted to interview them for this article because I have seen, firsthand, the way that they use small moments to interact with their children in meaningful ways. Joel and Emily are the typical working parents with busy schedules, and their children are involved in a host of activities, so they are not strangers to a chaotic lifestyle. Even though every member of their family is really busy, the Washburns still prioritize family time above other activities. In fact, Emily says, “It’s great to have a date night and go to a few social events here and there, but to Joel and me, family life is a major priority. Joel and I set aside a small amount of time to spend with each other, and the rest of the time is all about developing our kids.” Some of the family activities that the Washburns enjoy are movie nights, cul-de-sac ball, backyard football, and making s’mores around the fire pit. Joel and Emily are truly passionate about connecting with their children in meaningful ways; however, they don’t just utilize these special family experiences to connect. A lot of their communication happens during the more mundane and routine times. Emily finds herself having quality conversations with their kids during homework time and while driving the kids to and from activities, while Joel waits for the bus with Riley each morning for some one-on-one time, and catches up with Olivia and Sam around the dinner table or while in the car. In order to make the most of these conversations, Joel and Emily focus on asking open-ended questions and listening more than they talk. Emily says, “It’s important for things to feel like a casual conversation between friends so that they don’t feel like they are being questioned or judged.” They typically talk about what the kids have been doing in school, whether or not they are struggling with a particular subject or issue, what the kids are looking forward to, or maybe even something the kids want to do on an upcoming weekend. Joel and Emily have found that, so far, their children are very open with them and are eager to share what’s going on in their lives, and Joel and Emily attribute this to the way they interact with their children. Emily says that they “don’t go light on discipline,” but that they “don’t start with it either.” If they detect a potential problem, they like to listen to the children and try to gather all of the facts before they dole out punishments. Joel and Emily also make it a priority to be very involved, at all levels, with their children’s activities and friends. It’s important to them to know who their children are interacting with and what they’re doing.
While creating big, lasting memories for your children is fun and important, to some degree, there really is no substitute for quality time and quality communication, and relegating this to one week each summer or to an hour or two on Saturdays just won’t cut it. You have to be intentional with your children every spare minute you get throughout the hectic days of everyday life. Whether it’s a three minute conversation while you brush hair in the morning before school or the ten minute ride from soccer practice back home, it’s important to fill that time with talking to each other about anything and everything. Dr. Armstrong says that the best way to foster openness with your children is to “allow children to experience and express all of their feelings, including negative ones.” He says his two best pieces of advice are to share meals together regularly without the distractions of televisions or other electronic devices. Instead, just talk – talk about your day and do so in an accepting and encouraging way, quieting your urge to judge. Secondly, Dr. Armstrong says, “have fun doing things together.” Whatever this looks like for your family, just spend time fostering a sense of fun and togetherness. There really is no substitute for those two things in a family.
If you’re interested in further reading on the topic of depression in children and teens, Neil Tullos has a lot of resources he can share with you. There are several articles that deal with this issue, and Focus on the Family offers a wealth of information on this topic. Also, the book It’s Just a Phase by Kristen Ivy and Reggie Joiner is available in our church library, and Neil also recommends the podcast Love Thy Neighbor. Just know that if you or your children or anyone that you love is struggling with depression, there are many people in our church and community who want to help you, so reach out.