The 1980s is remembered in the romantic light of carefree childhoods. Many of my generation look back fondly on days spent roaming the neighbourhood, our parents not watching over us until it came time to eat our boiled Brussels sprouts. (Though we don’t look on that latter part quite so fondly.)
My early years were idyllic, yet I don’t remember my childhood as carefree. Behind all the bike riding and backyard cricket matches, there was a pile of worry; I was eternally overthinking, a perfectionist and – if I’d known the word for it back then – I’d have described myself as quite anxious.
My parents, though they could see I was churning things over in my brain, didn’t question it or sit me down to talk it through; they simply told me to get back outside and play with my siblings.
That’s just how my parents were.
My parents told me, "we're proud of you", never realising that those words helped to keep my mind from taking those anxieties further.
As I moved from that 80s childhood into my 90s teen years, in which the grungy angst that decade is famous for matched my mood and worries – about everything from body image to self-worth – they continued this hands-off parenting style.
But there was one thing they did that saved me. My parents told me, "we're proud of you", never realising that those words helped to keep my mind from taking those anxieties further.
What we’re realising now, is parents play a protective role in their child’s mental health. Back in 2012, a research project from the University of Cincinnati looked at drug and alcohol use in pre-teens and teens. In late 2017, researchers took a fresh look at this study from the perspective of mental health.
They found that parenting behaviours impact on children in a startling way. The report states, “Children (aged 12 to 13) with parents who never or rarely told them they were proud of them were nearly five times more likely to have suicidal thoughts, nearly seven times more likely to formulate a suicide plan and about seven times more likely to attempt suicide than their peers.
"It follows through consistently, regardless of gender, regardless of race—it’s all across the board.”
I’m now a parent myself, and this is an idea that weighs heavily with responsibility. That overthinking, perfectionist personality of mine – that was later diagnosed with depression and anxiety – kicks back into overdrive with the worry of messing up my two kids.
But psychotherapist Dr Karen Phillip says it’s a responsibility we mustn’t ignore. “To all children, their parents are their leaders; the models who define who they are as a person. The words children hear from their parents have a deep and profound effect as the child defines themselves and their self-worth alongside these words.
“Words carry such power and strength. It is essential children hear recognition and praise from their parents. It is equally essential children have time with their parents, interacting positively with them.”
If a child does do something wrong, makes a mistake or experiences a trauma, the response of the parent is fundamental for the outcome and learning for the child.
Of course, we can’t stop our children from having negative experiences; we’re not expected to. But our children are looking to our reactions as a guide to deal with their life experiences.
“If a child does do something wrong, makes a mistake or experiences a trauma, the response of the parent is fundamental for the outcome and learning for the child,” says Dr Phillip.
This research and information is shared not to make parents feel guilty or more pressured. Instead, it’s a reminder to be curious and ever learning in our parenting, to value time, effort and loving words.
It’s a reminder to tell your kids those four important, protective words: “I’m proud of you”.
It might help them more than you know.