When is it too early to start talking to children about
sex, drugs, alcohol, suicide, and mental illness?
Unfortunately, we are too late already; we missed the train with technology and social media on it; it has surpassed us, and now we must catch up. It is time to stop muttering around children and putting things in the too-hard basket because technology and media haven’t done that; everything is out there for kids to watch, hear and imitate.
So why are we still whispering?
Because when we talk about these ‘delicate’ subjects, as some like to call them, we risk exposing children to things they still don’t know. Why poke the naïveté they still have—if they still have any? The question is, how can we be sure they don’t already know? How can we be sure that very young children are not already having conversations with their friends about older siblings or parents saying they want to die?
Children confide in friends because thinking out loud helps them make sense of things in their household. But our children also need to understand what they hear from their friends and on the school grounds. Stay in those surroundings long enough, and it becomes the default mode of thinking; and we do not want our children to think that suicide is an option when things get tough; we need to show them what another option looks like.
Given we don’t really know what and how much our children are exposed to unless they don’t have the internet, TV, or phone, are homeschooled, and of course have no friends or connections, wouldn’t it be wise to assume they know a lot more than we think?
As our connection, social media and technology deliver brutal scenes of war, our planet dying, pandemics and violence every second. Some scenes seem like cartoons compared to some images and visuals teens subject themselves to with violent video games or shows on TV.
So, before we use the age-appropriate pretext in education, let’s consider what they already know and let that be the foundation for a curriculum designed to cater to children’s actual needs. The prevalence of digital technology in our lives changes the whole equation of education and the roles of teachers and parents. We can no longer assume our children don’t know. Therefore, we have no choice but to educate early on, and it must be a curriculum that caters for the norm, and not for now but for the future.
With teenage and young adult suicides being the leading cause of death in Australia, and with every 1 suicide there are 275 other people seriously considering it, it isn’t hard to see that the norm has somewhat changed or is changing exponentially—just like technology, our culture, and world stability.
When circumstances change quicker than our culture can adapt, our children lose attachment to their surroundings. Often, parents and teachers are the first they switch off from, while peer orientation and social media become their primary source of education.
But social media can be nasty, and so can peers. If children have detached themselves emotionally from their parents or loving careers, the blow of a friendship, relationship breakup, or nasty and humiliating comments on social media, for a peer-oriented child, can trigger suicidal thoughts as everything they considered a foundation is no longer there.
The trauma of a suicide in the community is devastating and has ramifications and implications for many years. The school does not always know if a child has a parent or older sibling who is depressed and suicidal until it happens, and then the whole school is affected, whether they are prepared or not.
Mental Health Education (MHE), taught creatively (which does not mean giving talks alongside PowerPoint slides), gives the children an understanding of how their mind works and how to manage stressful moments. There will be many dips in life that will challenge children and teens, and they will not get by without empathy, resilience, and grit, which are skills, not gifts you possess.
Refining these skills during their education and teaching the tricks our mind has up its sleeve to make us feel miserable or happy is what should be taught regularly, along with math, science, and English. That is how you can develop a culture in the school that has a growth mindset and not a fixed one. A child with a growth mindset is less likely to consider suicide and drugs or fall into despair when things get tough. The costs to the public health system for not teaching children basic survival skills are apparent, as untreated mental illnesses continue to produce physical disease because often the physical is a by-product of the mental. Where will we be five years from now if we don’t do anything differently? We need to turn the curve in education, and we need to do it now.
Whether the subject is suicide, drugs, sex, or feelings, when you attach visuals with a positive message and repeat it over and over again, making the message very sticky, your brain learns to trigger the same neural pathways each time. That becomes the default mode of thinking…and that’s how you create a positive shift in cultural and social behaviour.
Rather than trying to shield children from what they may not know, why don’t we focus on building resilience and grit in children? Some images on the news can be distressing for children and best avoided if they can’t make sense of what they see, but unfortunately, things pop up in front of our eyes, and we just aren’t quick enough to swipe or click away what we’ve just seen. We must find a creative way forward to make our message stickier than theirs. If schools must accomplish the great task of educating it must remove the hindrances that impede knowledge in the first place, and that is fear of the unknown.
The unknown is just an algorithm away, and then what?