When I was asked to write about teens and young people’s emotional and mental wellbeing I wasn’t sure where to start. It’s such a vast topic. Then I got thinking. There is a quote that has stuck with me for the last 23 years, from an essay I wrote at university: “Childhood is a Cultural Invention” Discuss. (Kessen, 1979: from The American Child and Other Cultural Inventions). I was fascinated when I wrote this assignment. I read studies on children as young as five years being left in charge of camp, fire, cooking and younger siblings whilst parents went off foraging and hunting. I read of three year olds using a machete to chop food and gut fish. Later I watched programmes where young kids swam in waters far deeper than them, hunting for fish: diving down to tie and untie nets. It has always intrigued me; how different societies treat their young – and the correlation to wellbeing.
Mental Health Crisis
In this country (and other Western countries) now, we are facing what is being termed a ‘mental health crisis’ in our youth (and all ages) and many people are asking why. My thoughts are this: Life has become so fragmented. If we think about key things that we need to keep us sane and happy: a sense of community of purpose and of belonging are high up the list. Yet we live lives where parents go off to work, kids to school and very often we have little time outside of that to spend together. We may be busy with clubs, activities, chores etc, but often our lives and those of our young are quite separate. Then there is pressure for ‘quality time’ which often, in a capitalist society, can be translated into day trips or restaurant visits. The slow daily ‘togetherness’ is lost. The doing chores together, teaching our young as they work alongside us, to cook, clean, care for animals, build, or just communicate is lost too.
An acquaintance was talking to me once about the ‘domestic load’ on them, alongside full-time work. I suggested they get their teenager to cook a couple of times a week. They looked at me, bewildered and said that their teen couldn’t cook. They had ‘never had time’ to teach them. So here we can see clearly defined ‘roles:’ Mum ‘cares’ for EVERYONE. She is therefore exhausted and quite possibly resentful. Teen, practically, has an easy life – but they don’t feel like a real PART of the family. They also don’t learn the responsibilities of adulthood in a safe and supported environment. Mum has little time for anything other than chores, because they do all the caring and organising: therefore there is no ‘together while we work’ time, OR much ‘quality time’ together. She possibly feels the anger of ‘I do everything for you. You do nothing.’
Involving children in daily activities
How can this model possibly work? And yet it runs throughout our society. Young people have few responsibilities, which can lead them to feeling a bit useless … which can eat into their self-esteem. My suggestion: involve your kids. Enjoy the chores together. This gives you time together, just being. It gives them a sense of pride, community, belonging and of being a useful and important part of something bigger. They develop skills, they gain your respect (and you theirs) and they build their self-esteem. You can chat through your day – and build connection.
In the early days – it can feel like hard work, yes, but I promise you the rewards are worth it. Kids are capable of far, far more than we give them credit for in our society. I truly believe that it is in holding them back, that frustrations arise. When kids are little, all they want to do is help their parents. Often we tell them no: it seems easier to do it yourself. But think on this: if you don’t let them hoover or wash up when they are 4 (and I know, it can be frustrating and they may break things) – well, how can you expect them to help when they are 14? (this was my mantra when mine were small – through gritted teeth sometimes, as jobs took hours and had to be re-done!)
I recently had a week off work with my husband and we built a cabin in our garden. My kids helped. It took us longer, because we had to teach them how to use tools and work with wood; to follow instructions, but … we had fun and they learned. They hammered in floorboards, screwed in roof boards, laid roof tiles … and when one was feeling off-colour, she cooked the meals, kept us hydrated and walked the dogs. Now: every day we can look outside and see what we built, together. Remember the fun and the learning. Have a sense of achievement. Yes, it took longer to do it this way, but as well as saving a significant amount of money by doing it ourselves, we learned together, talked together, had fun together, achieved together and also saved money on ‘activity days out’ during half term. We have a communal sense of achievement, togetherness and growth – and a daily visual reminder of that. This kind of togetherness: being together, doing together, achieving (and not) together is, I believe, fundamentally important to the overall wellbeing of everyone, but particularly for young people who are just finding their way in the world. They may seem ‘grown up’ and they may push us away – but what they really need is to feel like they truly belong with us, so that they can venture out with confidence.
Nicola Sinclair 10 June 2021