By Jade Glen
Imagine this: you buy your child brand new white shoes – they cost a small fortune, as shoes do. On the way home you stop by the park and your child runs around wearing their new kicks. Everything’s going swimmingly – and then your kid skids through a steaming pile of fresh dog poop.
Dr Michael Carr-Gregg, acclaimed psychologist and parenting expert, says there are two ways you can react in this scenario.
“One is oh no, my shoes are ruined, this always happens to me, and misery will prevail,” he said.
“Or if I have got to that child, the moment they step in that dog poo, the first thing they think is hey, at least I was wearing shoes. I want your child to be an at least I was wearing shoes thinker. How do they do that? by copying you. I want you to be an at least I was wearing shoes thinker.”
As keynote speaker at Pakenham Library’s ‘Together With Me’ Summit in April – an initiative of Together We Can to bring together support services and tackle domestic violence in Casey and Cardinia – Dr Carr-Gregg shared his key tips to help parents raise happy, confident and respectful young people.
Dr Carr-Gregg said there was a key piece of wisdom in the above scenario.
“In life you can’t always change something, but the thing that makes us different from all the other creatures on this planet is that we, and we alone, actually have the capacity to change the way we think about it.
“It is really important you understand. You can’t choose what happens to you, but you can always choose the way you respond.”
Dr Carr-Gregg said the journey from childhood to adulthood now had more risk factors than preventative factors.
“A lot of people are coming out on the other end actually quite damaged. What I’m interested in is prevention, and what you, as mums and dads and community members, can do to make this journey better.”
Parents often asked if their child was normal – and while Dr Carr-Gregg said normal was merely a ‘setting on a washing machine,’ there were four things he looked for.
“The ability to obtain, maintain and retain friendships is, according to all the childhood psychologists in the whole wide world, the greatest predictor of well being. You may think it is being good looking, having lots of money – completely irrelevant.
“If they are 12 or 13 and they can’t stand being away from you, this is problematic. I need them to be able to go on a school camp, I need them to go in woollies or coles and buy a carton of milk. So we need them to be able to emancipate from you.
“Then the school thing. They need to understand and enjoy school. What is the single most important predictor of a good schooling experience – the statistics clearly show the greatest predictor is the relationship they have with the teachers, and that is down to respect. Personally I think teachers should be paid more, I don’t think we pay them enough; if I was Premier I would in fact double the salary of teachers. I would probably bankrupt the state but that would be the first thing I do, because they hold the future of the country in their hands.
“Finally, do they have a spark, something that gets them up in the morning? Something they feel passionate about.
“When my son was eight he was passionate about leg spin bowling. I would walk in to his bedroom and he had pictures of Shane Warne everywhere. He played grade cricket at 15-years of age. We lived in Balwyn and I carted him to Casey Fields to stand in the hot sun for two days while he bowled.
“When he was about 17 it dawned on me that after two days in the hot sun at Casey Fields, he was actually too tired to go down to St Kilda and inject himself with heroin. So here’s the thing – while kids are busy doing one thing, they can’t be doing another. So if you want to inoculate your kid, make sure they are busy. Talk to anyone and the will say to you – bored kids are trouble. Because if they are bored they hang out with other kids that are bored, and those bored kids will find something to do to entertain themselves, which won’t necessarily be all that constructive.”
The ‘spark’ didn’t have to be a sport; it could be music, drama, gymnastics, art, a football team or the library itself- anything that was not materialistic and was ‘bigger than them.’
Dr Carr-Gregg said he could tell a child was travelling OK if they fulfilled the previous four requirements. But not all children did – and that is where early intervention was crucial.
“Now there are some kids that are not happy kids – about 1 in 7 Primary School students will have these sorts of symptoms. They will have frequent sadness. Now everyone is allowed to be sad: sadness lasts minutes, hours or days and is a normal response to something bad that happens. Depression is a pervasive and relentless sense of despair that lasts much longer, feels much worse, and we suspect is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. It’s an illness, it’s got to be diagnosed and treated first,” he said.
“They may no longer enjoy the things they used to enjoy. They feel hopeless, they’ve got no sense of optimism, concentrating and focusing becomes difficult, they will be irritable or will withdraw from their friends. They will also talk of, or attempt to, run away. They don’t have energy, they are lethargic, have thoughts of self-harm and sometimes will do it. Somatic symptoms – tummy aches or headaches. They are actually more irritable than sad, nothing makes them happy, and they are quite hard to be with.
“The reason I’m giving you this list is this – because I’m really concerned that early identification and prompt treatment is not happening. The earlier we get to a kid, the quicker we can start treatment and the better the outcome. The longer we leave it, quite often depressed kids will act out, will maybe drink or take drugs, and therefore we have two problems, depression and the substance abuse, then they don’t do well at school and we have academic problems, legal problems, and it continues.”
Dr Carr-Gregg said parents had a very important role to play in helping to manage their child’s wellbeing.
“We need to talk to our children when they are young, because when they are teenagers virtually everything is met with a Neanderthal grunt.
“One of the things I always say is try and spend at least 8 minutes a day with them without any where we get down on our knees, look them in the eyes and ask them about their day, listen very carefully and then this is the trick, reflect it back to them. Eight minutes per day, per kid – awfully sorry if you have 14 children – but 8 minutes a day is what we reckon really makes a big difference.
“Self-respect comes from them feeling really good about themselves, and one thing that makes them feel good about themselves is if we give them time. Very easy to say, harder to do.”
Dr Carr-Gregg said it was crucial that parents could strike a positive balance between their work and home life.
He also listed getting enough sleep – 10 hours for Primary students and 9 hours for Secondary students – enough exercise, and a mediterranean-style diet heavy on vegetables as crucial for mental wellbeing.
Parents needed to prioritise self-care to provide an example for their children.
“Every single person in this room has 30 eggs in their psychological basket. Each egg represents a unit of life energy. I want you to imagine that I’ve given you three baskets, one is the basket for yourself, one is for your family, and the other is work, whatever you do, and it might be housework which is just as important as a paid job.
“Most people lie to me and say they’ve divided them 10-10-10. Most people if they are truthful will tell me they’ve got 5 in their own basket, 10 in their family, 15 at work, and that’s on a good day with the wind behind them. They prioritise wrongly. This is a really good way to get cancer heart disease and a stroke. This is not how we were constructed as human beings to operate.
“What in fact we need to do is have an ideal situation where you actually put 15 eggs in your own basket, you invest in yourself, and if you do that the 10 you give to your family will be double-yolkers, they will be better quality eggs and the 5 that you put in to your work will be solid gold because you put energy in to yourself, energy in to your family, and you go to work and you know everything is cool.
“See life for what it is, but for goodness sake, focus on the good bits. If you watch the news tonight, it will be all doom gloom and despondency. Personally I don’t like watching the news anymore. What I think we need to do is teach our children to see life as it is, but to focus on the good bits.”