We need to be mindful parents

May 13, 2022 | 06:00 pm PT
Albert Tiong Country director of the Center for Mindfulness Singapore
Losing a child is difficult to accept for any parent, but to lose a child through suicide is absolutely unbearable. Sadly, cases of child suicide are rising in Vietnam.

While many chase a "perfect" life, they do not anticipate the pressure that comes with it, and are mentally ill-equipped to deal with the psychological stress. Those that do not see a way out end up taking their own lives as a means to the end.

Our mind is a judging machine. When we experience something, usually our mind automatically thinks it's good, or bad. If the experience is pleasant, our mind hangs on to that feeling, and we want more of it. If the experience is unpleasant, we will try to hide, resist, and escape. And all other feelings are judged as "neutral", so we tend to forget it.

There's nothing wrong with these judgments. It's natural for the mind to judge. Sometimes, these judgments are helpful. They can help us to understand why we like to do certain things, and why something makes us upset. The problem starts when we allow our mind to judge automatically too often and too much. We must always have a balance in everything. Sometimes too much of a good thing is not that good.

Look around our society today and we are surrounded by people who judge too much. When you ask parents what they want their children to be in the future, they will normally say they want their children to be in "good jobs". By saying "good jobs" is already an example of judgement. What makes a "good" job good? And do we mean other jobs are bad? In the competitive society we all grew up in, most of us were inculcated during our younger days by our elders with the idea that in order to be successful in life, we have to work hard. For children that means study hard, achieve good results at schools, get admitted into and graduate from prestigious universities with the aim of securing jobs with high salaries in order to live a comfortable life. A common practice within Asian parents is that parents have a tendency to impose their ideas on their children, believing that as elders, they know more than the younger generation due to the life experience they themselves have been through. It is also the desire for many parents to protect the young, and as such, they make many of the life decisions on their behalf.

While some children are fortunate to share the same life ambitions as their parents have intended for them, others face conflicting ideas, which often results in misunderstanding, disagreements, quarrels and fights. For children who are introverted and timid in nature, these negative emotions accumulate within them with little or no avenue for them to speak out. Their stress level rises leading to depression, and sadly in some cases, suicide.

As parents, we are indeed the primary influencing authority in our children's lives. We all want the best for our children and want to be the best parent, but despite our best intentions, it often becomes a war zone. Life's demands, fast pace and multiple responsibilities not only hinder our best intentions but often also sap the joys of parenting, leaving us drained, exhausted and bitter. In spite of all the love, efforts, sacrifices and tears, we often carry the burden of guilt, anxiety and/or feeling inadequate and incompetent as parents. We know that yelling is not the answer, we know we are not being the best role model when we lash out at our children, but often that's all we have left.

Parents need to understand that their definition of success does not necessarily lead to success and happiness for their children. People, including children, learn best when they are motivated from within, and not being forced to learn. When they are forced to learn, the experience is often unpleasant, leading to lack of motivation, desire, and a sense of purpose, which often leads to stress and even depression.

Chronic emotional stress in children can impair development of the brain, leading to problems with memory, emotion, and learning. As children grow to become teenagers, they start to exhibit signs of impulsivity, rebelliousness, self-centeredness and being emotional. A lot of this is due to the changes happening in adolescent brains. Human brains change and develop in set patterns, leaving teenagers with a mix of mature and immature brain regions as they grow. The last area to fully develop is the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for making sense of complex things in life, helping us to make rational decisions.

For adolescents, this important part of the brain is not fully developed yet. So when pressures like fitting in or doing well in school increase at a much faster pace than the prefrontal cortex can develop, the adolescent brain is overloaded. This explains why they tend to make decisions that do not follow logical patterns and sequences, resulting in decisions that often do not make sense, or even risky. Some of the brain areas that undergo the most dramatic changes during adolescence have been linked with mental ill-health. These changes can leave the brain vulnerable to small issues becoming dysfunctions. This may explain why so many mental health problems, from schizophrenia to anxiety disorders, commonly appear during adolescence.

We've all heard that chronic stress can lead to depression. A person with depression is unmotivated and uninterested, finds it difficult to make decisions, and takes no enjoyment from life. As a result, the individual may avoid social events that they usually enjoy, so missing out on social interaction, which can cause a vicious circle which sees them spiraling further downwards. Depression can make it difficult for a person to concentrate and remember things. In extreme cases the sense of hopelessness may lead to thoughts of self-harm or even suicide.

Children who grow up facing repetitive traumatic experiences are also likely to face issues with personality later in their lives. Toxic stress response can occur when a child experiences strong, frequent and/or prolonged adversity which results in changes to their baseline state. Examples of toxic stress include physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, caregiver substance abuse or mental illness, exposure to violence or the accumulated burdens of family economic hardship.

This prolonged activation of the stress response systems can disrupt the development of brain architecture and other organ systems, and increase the risk for stress-related disease and cognitive impairment, well into the adult years. The presence of social-emotional buffering such as a healthy relationship support from an adult determines whether the resulting stress response will be tolerable or toxic.

Toxic stress has the potential to change your child's brain chemistry, brain anatomy and even gene expression. Toxic stress weakens the architecture of the developing brain, which can lead to lifelong problems in learning, behavior, and physical and mental health. When a child experiences toxic stress, the Hypothalamic Pituitary and Adrenal (HPA) hormone axis is over-activated. This results in blood levels of the stress hormone cortisol being higher which can result in long term changes in inflammation and immunity.

Studies have shown associations between toxic stress and changes in brain structure. The consequences of this can include more anxiety as well as impaired memory and mood control. Time has changed. Our children now grow up in a society vastly different compared to ours, and it is therefore important for us to realize that our style of parenting will have to evolve to meet the different challenges that they now face.

*Albert Tiong is the country director for Vietnam of the Singapore-based Center for Mindfulness. The opinions expressed are his own.

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