Until relatively recently, mental health issues such as depression and anxiety were associated with immense social stigma and misunderstanding. There is still considerable progress to be made, however, when it comes to facilitating a society wherein those who are struggling to cope can access help without fear of judgement. Misconceptions regarding depression and anxiety are prevalent in every community, and even within the Muslim community, the harmful assumption continues to persist that depression and anxiety are always a sign of weak faith. It’s essential that these damaging narratives are amended via the teachings and learnings of Islam as well as modern Psychology. The circumstances and variables surrounding depression are incredibly complex, and understanding the root cause of depression is crucial to helping those around us.
Countless psychological studies have demonstrated that there is an intrinsic correlation between developing depression and anxiety later in life and our childhood experiences and the way we were parented. During our childhoods we are undergoing a fundamental developmental phase in our lives, not only physically but emotionally as well, and our experiences, therefore, exercise a strong influence upon the behaviours, characteristics, traits, and attributes we will exhibit as adolescents and adults. Evidently, a parent’s greatest desire is to ensure that their children are adequately prepared to pave their own way and achieve their goals in a world that can be hostile, unforgiving, and difficult.
There’s no doubt that this desire stems from genuine concern and affection for our children, but there are times that the methods and strategies we use to implement these teachings can become counterproductive. This is something that parents can be easily susceptible to, especially when it comes to fathers who are trying to prepare their sons for the outside world. Many times, they end up projecting an unrealistic and restrictive interpretation of masculinity – we’ve all heard of terms such as ‘man up’ and ‘don’t cry like a girl’. Again, whilst this may come from a place of love the truth is that it doesn’t really do anything to equip children with the cognitions, knowledge, and attitudes they need to thrive and succeed.
When it comes to effective parenting, it’s necessary to understand a child’s perspective. Growing up in these modern times is far from easy, and children are experiencing a range of difficulties and pressures on multiple fronts – whether it is from peers, family, social media, or education. As parents, we can end up overlooking our child’s emotional needs, and over time this neglect can manifest itself later on as symptoms of depression or anxiety.
In the 21st century, there is an entire multi-million dollar industry established around providing people with the therapies, conversations, and support they need to overcome depression and anxiety. It is often said that prevention is better than cure, and as parents, we can do something now to ensure that our children are not crippled by mental health difficulties as adolescents or adults.
Fundamental to sympathetic parenting is not reacting negatively to children when they are trying to process the changes, challenges, and emotions they are experiencing during this time in their life, and instead of communicating with them in order to accompany and guide them on this journey. For example, if a child is physically or emotionally hurt in some way, a parent’s immediate reaction shouldn’t be to say stop crying or man up. A child needs to be soothed and comforted – and rather than teaching them weakness this is validating their feelings. Through this validation, a child will learn not to suppress their emotions and suffer in silence, but to face and address their problems and find a solution to them.
By this children will learn to process their emotions and realise that any emotion, regardless of whether they are physical or emotional, is a temporary state of mind that will pass rather than a permanent disposition. Many adults experiencing depression or anxiety feel that they are trapped within a specific situation or frame of mind, and when there is no perceived end in sight hopelessness and despair can begin to set in. In many instances, this is a learned response, because as a child they are never encouraged to connect with and explore their emotions, and are never given the chance to realise that there is an end to even the most upsetting and frustrating of trials.
With regards to our role as parents, we have a duty to connect with our children on an empathetic level. When we react to particular emotions or expressions by restricting and suppressing them, we are teaching our children that their behaviours and feelings are not normal. Inadvertently, we can give our child the impression that there is some deficiency or shortcoming within them when in reality they are experiencing and exhibiting something which is only natural and human. Over the years this can spiral into self-deprecating thoughts, where someone will believe that they’re a failure and a disappointment because they couldn’t fulfill their parent’s expectations as a child.
Throughout my work, I’ve spoken with so many believers who said that they’ve struggled to cry even when supplicating to Allah. And it is so painfully apparent to me that this is because they have been conditioned to believe that any overt display of emotion is not manly. Children who are taught to suppress their emotions grow up to lack empathy and understanding and the tragedy of this is that these adults are unable to cry even when they want to. From an Islamic perspective, such disconnect from one’s emotions is so utterly abstract and far removed from the principles of our faith. As our beloved Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said:
“The Muslim Ummah (nation) is like one body. If the eye is in pain then the whole body is in pain and if the head is in pain then the whole body is in pain.”
Empathy is at the heart of this ahadith, as it should be at the heart of every believers’ utterances and actions. Without empathy, there would be no goodness, and this is so effectively demonstrated by a simple illustration. Imagine if you were strolling down the street and you happened to fall and sprain your ankle. Spraining an ankle is incredibly painful, and because of the pain, there’s every likelihood that some tears may roll down your face. If someone were to say to you, such as your wife or an onlooker, that you need to be more of a man and stop crying – there’s no denying that it would hurt. To be experiencing pain and then to have that pain dismissed will always be hurtful, no matter what your age.
As parents when we say to our children that they must man up or not cry we are guilty of this. By dismissing their pain, we are neither teaching them empathy nor how to connect emotionally with themselves or others. When we react lovingly and compassionately, however, we teach our children the crucial lesson that pain and emotion are perfectly natural consequences to particular circumstances and situations. It’s not something to be shunned or ashamed of, because when a child understands what anger is, or guilt, sadness, grief, frustration, and pain, then they can identify these feelings in others as well as themselves and exercise true empathy.
Alternatively, it’s important to examine this discussion from another perspective. There are instances where we can end up comforting and cushioning our children too much, and in this scenario, they never learn to face challenges because they never have the opportunity to experience them in the first place. The question that arises, therefore, is how do we strike a balance and cultivate an environment where our children are emotionally intelligent and resilient?
The home environment is a low-risk environment because parents control much of the variables, and it is here that you can teach important lessons. Enabling your child to experience and overcome failure and disappointment provides essential learning opportunities. It can be as simple as your son wanting to bake some cookies, and rather than intervening the moment you notice a mistake you let events unfold as they are. Your son might be upset or hurt when the cookies don’t go as perfectly as planned, but he will learn from his mistakes and eventually bake the perfect batch, entirely on his own initiative.
Within this controlled environment, a child will gradually learn to not only process negative emotions but also to identify a solution to these emotions – and a child with emotional autonomy will be less susceptible to experiencing depression or anxiety later on in life. Ultimately, experiencing depression or anxiety is not always a sign of weak Emaan or a lacking or shortcoming in either faith or character. In many cases, mental health difficulties are the product of an upbringing where children were never taught to identify, address and process their emotions. For parents, it is pivotal that we foster an environment where children can learn to self-regulate their emotions without fear of judgement, dismissal, or disapproval. Emotional intelligence is incredibly self-empowering, and by instilling this in our children we will raise a generation that is strong, robust, and independent.
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