Childhood should be a time for fun and exploration - but stress, depression and obesity are on the rise among the young. What can parents do to ease their growing pains? Charmaine Yabsley hears the psychologist's prescription.
Most of us remember our childhood as a happy time when the sun always shone, life was simple and the biggest decision to make was whether or not we wanted a Flake in our ice cream. But it seems that children of today have lost the knack of being happy. According to a recent report, state-school pupils aged 11 are to receive lessons in happiness in an attempt to reduce stress and antisocial behaviour in youngsters.
It's estimated that 10 per cent of schoolchildren experience serious depression at some stage, ranging in symptoms from lowered self-esteem to prolonged bouts of despair, anti-social behaviour, bullying and even violence.
Children face a more complex society today," says Claire Halsey, a clinical psychologist working with children and families. "More than ever, children face greater pressure to succeed academically, plus there are more changes in family composition and mobility than ever before. It's little wonder they are confused and distressed."
On the evidence of recent reports, it does appear that the younger generation are in the midst of a depression epidemic. About one-third of girls and a quarter of boys are now so afraid of being bullied at school that they're reluctant to go. And, according to the counselling service ChildLine, children as young as six are attempting suicide because of bullying, abuse and family problems.
There are reports that children as young as eight are being treated for anorexia and bulimia, as they go to extreme lengths to emulate the waif-like figures of their favourite celebrities. About 40 per cent of girls want plastic surgery to change their features, while one boy in four would opt for cosmetic changes to help them "fit in" with their friends.
So where are we going wrong? Are our children really that unhappy, or are these statistics just the reality of today's youth? And do our children need happiness lessons, or are we shirking our responsibilities as parents? Here are 10 ways to help your children be happy and boost their self-confidence.
Claire Halsey appears in the parenting programme 'Driving Mum and Dad Mad' on ITV1 at 9pm on Mondays.
EATING HAPPY MEALS
Anybody who has seen Jamie's School Dinners will be aware of the negative effects of junk food on our children's health, and why the apple taken to school shouldn't be for the teacher. "What you feed your child has an incredible effect on their brain function, behaviour and intelligence," says the nutritionist Patrick Holford, the author of Optimum Nutrition for Your Child's Mind (Piatkus, £10.99) and spokesman for the Food for the Brain campaign (www.foodforthebrain.org). "Most of our children aren't getting their five-a-day serving of fruit and vegetables, so they're not receiving enough nutrients and vitamins to help growing bones and expanding minds."
It is imperative that Omega-3s, in particular, are part of a child's daily diet. At Newhall Park Primary School in Bradford, 34 children who took daily doses of omega-3 fish oils showed an 81 per cent improvement in reading ability, and improved concentration and behaviour. "If children don't get enough of these fats - found in salmon, trout, sardines, pumpkin or sunflower seeds - behavioural and learning problems may occur, as the brain is unable to function correctly," Holford says. (Try Higher Nature's omega-3-rich cream; 28 sachets, £14.99.)
"It's also important that children eat a healthy breakfast in the morning, as this will help them to maintain focus throughout the day," says the Boots nutritionist Vicky Pennington (www.boots.com). "A wholegrain breakfast cereal is best for energy levels, and helps children's concentration levels."
Pack a bottle of water with the lunchbox, as dehydration can lead to feelings of lethargy and depression. After school, snacks such as fruit, oatcakes or yogurt are ideal. Avoid sugary or chocolate snacks; eaten after 3pm, they can affect sleep.
A study by Professor Edward Melhuish of Birkbeck College in London found that the happiness level and behaviour of children are directly affected by the amount of time parents spend singing, reading and playing with them. The more time children spend on these activities, either with an adult or on their own, the more intelligent, co-operative and happier they are, the study found.
Reading at bedtime also helps to ensure a better night's sleep, Halsey says. "Children will be comforted by spending time reading with their parent before sleep, plus this gives them extra one-on-one time. They may use this time to confide in you if anything is bothering them, or share details of their friends and school life, which you may not ordinarily find out," she says.
Bedtime stories also set the groundwork for creating strong listening and memory skills, plus the all-important interest in the written word.
SPENDING TIME AS A FAMILY
The concept of 'family time' rarely exists in Britain today," Halsey says. It's believed that about half of children under the age of four have TVs in their bedrooms, a figure that doubles for children of 12. It's no surprise, then, that children spend about five hours a day watching TV or playing computer games, which experts believe hampers their ability to communicate with peers.
"Change this by having family meals and playing games together," Halsey says. "Children crave attention; spending time together means you can achieve family closeness, and find out what's going on in your child's life."
"Remember the first time your child made something at school with their own hands and how excited they were?" says Jason Maratos, a psychotherapist at the Group Analytic Practice (GAP) in London and a consultant for children and adolescent psychiatry. "They'd discovered the joy of expressing themselves creatively, without worrying whether it was any good."
Maratos recommends encouraging children to participate in creative pursuits on a regular basis. "It doesn't matter whether they've got any artistic talent," he says. "It's more important that the child knows that they're allowed to tap into their creative side, regardless of results."
The outside world can be a scary place for children, and some parents keep their children close by their sides. Busy roads, predatory adults, accidents and crime play on parents' minds, which means that children are rarely allowed outdoors to play by themselves. This can get in the way of the difficult but vital job of leading children from dependence to independence. As Halsey points out, this does not teach children how to make their own decisions and to make the transition to an adult.
"Help children to take on responsibilities, such as going to the neighbours with a message, packing their own school-bags or helping with chores," she advises. She recommends the "three Ws" - "Know where are they, who are they with and when will they be back - to instil a sense of responsibility into your child and peace of mind for yourself." (For a leaflet on safety away from home, see www.nspcc.org.uk/documents/Outalone.pdf)
GOOD SOCIAL SKILLS
"Teaching your child to get on well with others is a key skill for survival at home and in school," Halsey says. "Children who make friends easily are much less likely to be bullied and have a greater sense of their true worth."
She suggests that parents encourage their child's friendship skills by involving their children's friends in family events, and by encouraging participation in groups and clubs where teamwork is required. "This encourages children to learn how to communicate with others, to take leadership and to take direction from their peers."
Five million British parents now live in a non-traditional family set-up, according to the research company Mintel. But this doesn't mean a child misses out on attention. "Children of single parents don't lose out on their quota of love," Halsey says. "It's the quality of time a child receives from one parent, not the quantity, so children don't really suffer if there's one parent; it only matters that they get some individual attention. As long as your children are reassured that the break-up isn't their fault, they can continue to have a positive relationship with both parents." One-on-one time gives children a sense of importance. "Children love being the centre of attention; it's a great boost for self-esteem," Halsey says.
MAKING DECISIONS AS A FAMILY
"When children are consulted as part of a family's decision-making process, they feel respected and worthwhile," Halsey says. "Children feel that their view is important, which gives them a greater sense of security." It also sets them up for coping in the real world. "Negotiating and compromising is part of fitting in with life's structure, whether it be the family, friends or work, or as part of a team." Maratos agrees: "If children feel that their opinion matters, they'll have a sense of how important it is to speak with confidence and participate in life." Knowing that their parents rely on them to help make their decisions will encourage children to feel that they are as good as anybody else.
PARTICIPATING IN TEAM SPORTS
A survey by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority found that children who play sports do better in exams and are less likely to misbehave or truant. And, with almost two million schoolchildren overweight and 700,000 obese, sporting activities are important for not only health purposes, but also for improving co-ordination, self-esteem and teamwork skills.
CARING FOR A PET
Having a fluffy friend for your child to care for can provide them with an instant friend, according to a University of Warwick study. It found that children who keep pets are healthier and more emotionally balanced than those who don't. A study of 256 children aged five to 11 years in three schools in England and Scotland found that those children who kept pets had an 18 per cent higher attendance record than non-pet-owning children.