Is the fast-paced, high-intensity, success-driven lifestyle of Hong Kong causing anxiety in our children? Are the academic pressures and extreme competition adding too much stress? According to child and adolscent counselor and Hong Kong Mom Lucy Graham, anxiety in children is not unique to Hong Kong, it is, however, on the rise. And as our kids (and ourselves) are inundated with digital distractions, social connectivity, too, is a growing problem. The good news is, there is a lot we can to do help our children manage stress and lead healthy and happy lives. British-born, Australian and Hong Kong-trained, Graham, offers us her expertise both as a professional and as a mother of two adolescent boys.
What do you see as the biggest issues for kids and teens in Hong Kong?
Most of the issues I see here ultimately relate to relationships and connectivity. Most aspects of human flourishing and well being are ultimately supported by healthy connection to ourselves and to others. So self-awareness and healthy friendships and relationships are key.
Associated with supporting healthy connections, I am also concerned about teen stress (now at higher reported levels than adult stress). There is an established body of evidence highlighting the long-term health benefits of good social connection and this is hard to achieve for anybody suffering stress and anxiety.
Academic pressure and well-meaning but achievement-oriented parenting is present all over the world, especially where there is a strong ‘felt’ sense of competition and where formal education is held in high regard. Life IS competitive but it is also collaborative and arguably it is collaboration skills which really mark individuals out. It is good to see schools in Hong Kong focusing on collaboration and empathy skills, which were once seen as soft skills (nice to have) but are now increasingly important to recruiters worldwide.
How is the “digital age” impacting our children?
Globally, we are still learning. It is not all bad news — there are many benefits to digital connection, but there are also many challenges. Psychological research in this area is on-going and there is concern about the correlation between on-line socializing and the decline of empathy. There are a number of recent publications on the subject, including Dr Michelle Borba’s book Unselfie and the documentary movie Screenagers. It’s important that adults and teens keep a dialogue going about both the benefits and the challenges of social networking — that adults/parents listen to their adolescents’ wisdom and ask the same in return.
Do you think the issues in Hong Kong are different from the other cities?
The work culture in Hong Kong (long, late hours and/or frequent travel) can be challenging for families. Parents may feel pressure to be absent from home-life more often than they wish. But work demands are not unique to Hong Kong. What is fairly unique here is the opportunity to employ extra support in the form of helpers (who make huge personal sacrifice in living away from their own families). While their support is invaluable, helpers are not always empowered to provide the guidance or set the boundaries needed for children and teens to flourish. If helpers are to take a significant role in caring for children and teens it is important to empower them. This means ensuring that children and adolescents are respectful of their role alongside ensuring that your helper understands your family values, rules and boundaries. Bearing in mind that it’s not easy to parent consistently in a partnership, it is a big challenge to get this right with additional team-members, so expect to keep on learning through the process.
Another concern related to parental absence, is that to combat aimless drifting and hours of electronic entertainment it’s easy to be drawn into intensive scheduling. I don’t have the answers but I do know that some kind of balance is what we all strive for. Apart from resulting in exhaustion, overscheduling can lead to a lack of self-management and personal motivation. Over-scaffolding young people can give the message that they aren’t capable of achieving things on their own and doesn’t give much opportunity to demonstrate self-efficacy or develop self-respect. When young people are over-managed they are denied the sense of achievement that comes with working things out for themselves.
Hong Kong is such a transitional place — does this cause a lot of anxiety in our children?
The transient nature of Hong Kong does challenge our children to adapt to change. This can be very upsetting in the short-run but in another sense it’s a real-life exercise in resilience training and a valuable life-lesson — especially in today’s era of uncertainty. The landscape of our children’s future is likely to be very different than it was for us. So, in terms of preparing our children for this changeable future, learning how to adjust to friends leaving, moving schools and movie countries is significant training in itself.
Resilience is a teachable skill. According to Dr Martin Seligman and Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, approximately 50% of our potential for happiness is based on our biological set point (genetics). What about the other 50%? Seligman and Lyubomirsky estimate that a further 10% is based on our environmental circumstances and a sizeable 40% of our potential for happiness is based on our daily actions and choices. Acknowledging that this formula is only applicable in environments free from suffering, poverty, war and disease, there is still a significant message behind the happiness formula when it comes to taking on the challenges in life. Rather than see our experience of life as purely anchored in our genetics and our circumstances, it is empowering to know that a theoretical 40% is down to choices we make.
How can we best equip our kids to handle challenges well?
The starting point when it comes to building resilience skills is emotional awareness. Talking about emotions with children, learning a broad emotional vocabulary, understanding that emotions are felt by degrees and that they have physical signals, is important stuff! It’s also important to recognize that the same situations generate different emotions for different people.
As parents, the most validating thing we can do for our children is to acknowledge, accept and appreciate our children’s personality strengths and values — just as they are. To be truly recognized, understood and appreciated for who we already are is the best foundation for growth and resilience.
Nurturing an attitude of optimism is also important. When we view the future with hope and optimism we believe more good things will occur than bad and that we have power over what happens to us. When bad things do occur, they are manageable and we can do something about them. When we view the future with hope and optimism, it is easier to take on new challenges and try harder. Conversely, pessimism results in fatalism, giving up and helplessness
One of the best ways parents and adults can encourage optimism, growth mindset and resilience is to model the concepts first hand. When things go wrong for us and we try to replace personalizing, globalizing, catastrophizing comments with specific observations about a particular unhelpful behavior or turn of events, we provide a great example. It’s especially important for parents to model imperfection — it takes the pressure off our kids and shows that we too are constantly learning and changing. So rather than making fixed character trait comments about ourselves when talking about our deficits, we simply acknowledge we are still learning.
What signs should we look out for that might indicate our children are exhibiting signs of anxiety?
There’s no single set of behaviors but there are trends to look out for. For example somatic indicators such as difficulty sleeping, upset stomach, and headaches; changes in normal behavior patterns such as eating more or less, reduced communication, social withdrawal, increased tearfulness, school refusal, increased opposition, defiance and aggression; and emotional signs such as prolonged low mood, increased irritability and anger.
Of course these could all be indicators of issues besides anxiety but either way they are indicators that something is going on. Don’t expect children and teens to want to talk about it but do try to set up situations where you can encourage communication. Make it clear you are available and try to offer unconditional support. The aim is to stay out of judgement and try not to leap in and fix the problem. We need to do lots of listening and validating. Only when we have validated another person’s feelings can we help transition them into problem-solving thinking. Help children to brainstorm solutions but resist the urge to wade in and fix everything. Be there to support but empower them to learn and take action — with assistance as needed.
What can we teach our kids about handling anxiety?
Arguably one of the most effective methods is acceptance of stress and stressful situations: To start noticing when stress arises, recognize its physical sensations and understand what is happening in the body. This is one example of using the skill of mindfulness (aka noticing, observing). The stress response feels uncomfortable (think panic attack) and when we don’t know what is happening physiologically we start scaring ourselves with thoughts like “I’m going to have a heart attack!”, which compounds the fear. Knowledge about what is happening takes away this fear.
Other ways to help with anxiety include massage and the physical comfort of touch (not the creepy type but the supportive type that comes from hugs, massage and swaddling or being enveloped in a comfortable duvet), dietary management (pro-biotics, fermented foods and omega-3), as well as learning new skills to ‘unhook’ from the power of the anxious thoughts, such as breathing skills, mindfulness and self awareness and understanding thoughts and emotions.
What should we do if our children react negatively to change?
Validate their feelings. Validate their sadness and worries and fears and concerns. Change is hard when we liked the way things were. Loss is difficult. Any kind of significant loss can feel like a form of bereavement and shouldn’t be dismissed. However nobody wants to get stuck in these feelings forever. We need to find ways to come to terms with the change, reduce the impact of the loss and work towards doing things to help create the best possible life, given the loss. Asking what they miss most about the thing that they have lost and trying to find new ways to replicate that experience is a good approach. Try not to go straight to the ‘at least’ statements. These are well-intentioned but rarely can they make a person feel immediately better when they are struggling with a loss of something that is important to them.
What are some basics that we can do as a foundation to help our children feel secure and handle everyday ups and downs?
Love your kids for who they are, take time to understand them and what makes their character unique and special. Encourage them to try out new things, to strive for mastery and learn from feedback. Accept failure as a learning opportunity, embrace difference over conformity and above all give them and you permission to be human. Applaud bravery, both in obvious and subtle actions — showing empathy for others, trying something new or creating something original are all brave actions because they require vulnerability. They put our kids into an arena where they can be judged, which is scary but so necessary for progress. Validate all feelings even if they are different from yours (their feelings are theirs, yours are yours and there is no right or wrong), but help them to develop skills to reduce the impact of the challenging feelings and thoughts. Encourage optimism — it has a wonderful ripple effect — but don’t impose it or try to ‘flip’ negativity immediately. There’s a lot of valuable information that we can learn from negative thoughts and emotions. Help your children to be secure in the knowledge that they are special and valuable AND also part of something bigger — a larger community and a wider world.
Lucy Graham has her masters in counseling and works at the Mindquest Group where she meets with adolescents and parents. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her office is located in the Jadis Blurton Family Development Centre (2869 1962) in Kennedy Town.