It might surprise you that I connect values, morals and ethics with children’s mental health.
Strong values give our lives meaning. Many mental health professionals (including myself) argue that people with a strong sense of meaning in their lives are more likely to have good mental health; to feel happy and content with their lives. That’s why I would like to talk about why values are important for children, from young children to young adults.
Modern Culture, Identity and Mental Health
Our culture often celebrates people who are successful or rich, but many of these people do not seem to have strong values. Admiring these people or trying to be like them may give children and teenagers some pleasure and satisfaction but I would argue that this can contribute to mental health problems. Here’s why:
Every day – both in my work as a psychologist and in my community – I hear about young people who are “lost”. Children’s mental health services are overwhelmed with young people who have anxiety disorders or depression. Some may be engaging in risky behaviours such as drinking or substance abuse. Many young people don’t have a strong sense of what is important to them, so they will follow others blindly, and may end up getting into trouble. They are often preoccupied with the way they look, and what others think of them.
Whilst wanting to look good and be attractive to others is natural, it can create a superficial sense of identity. A sense that, “if you take my looks or nice clothes away, I am nothing”. This fragile sense of self is behind some of the mental ill health we see in young people today. In other words, not having clear values to live by is one of the risk factors for low self-esteem, mental health issues and even mental illness.
One form of therapy called ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) recognises that values are important factors in a child’s mental health. This therapy helps young people to understand and move towards their own values, to develop a strong sense of self and enhance their wellbeing.
When we are not living our values, life can sometimes lack meaning, and there can be a stuckness, as well as lack of future direction.
Values, Morals and Ethics
Moral development is an area of child development which is much neglected. Values are a crucial element in developing a coherent, positive sense of self. A sense that we know exactly what is important to us. Values can change over time, but many of them tend to endure.
For example, since I was very little I have held the value that I must stand up for the vulnerable. I “lived” this value by always being kind to animals from a young age, and trying to help other people too. Many values – such as kindness – are connected to morals and ethics (what is the right thing to do, both for myself and others?).
Others – such as creativity – may not be closely linked to morals or ethics, but provide a sense of meaning: An individual can express their thoughts, values and struggles through creativity (eg art, performing, writing), giving a sense of satisfaction and purpose.
Values guide us towards healthy development of positive relationships. A child can be clear that they want to start a friendship with someone because they share values, or that they want to avoid social connection with someone who acts against their values.
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Developing Values in Your Child: Parent Tips
Step 1: Find Out What Your Own Values Are, Then Live Them
Values are important for children’s mental health but equally important for adult mental health. Do you know what your own values are? Do you “live” your values?
- Respect for others
- Standing up for the vulnerable.
- Bouncing back from struggles and adversity (resilience).
- Making a difference.
- Living life to its fullest.
These are just a few of many possible values which might be important to you. Values can change over time too.
Values Cards: Download Your Free Electronic set Here
At Everlief (the clinic I run with my husband), the idea that values are important for children’s mental health is very important to us. We have created sets of “values cards” which young people can sort through, and create a shortlist of their values. You can see some of these cards throughout this article. Once the young person has their shortlist, we talk through which ones the young person is already “living”. Then we talk about how they can live each one a bit more each day. For example, if “Living life to its fullest” is an important value, the young person might decide to try something new each day, like a new food or a new activity.
You can do this too! Make a list of all your values, short-list the top 3 or 4, and start making plans to move towards them.
Next, be a role model. Is kindness one of your main values? Talk about kindness as a family, and think about ways you can “live it” each day, such as checking on an elderly neighbour or contacting a friend who is feeling down.
Step 2: Encourage a Strong “Moral Compass” in Your Child
It might sound obvious but you should consistently teach your child from early childhood that who they are underneath is so much more important than what they look like, what they own or how many 9s they get at GCSE. Think about the messages you are giving in your day-to-day interactions. Be aware that your child needs clear messages about the importance of values because our culture (social media, TV, peers, schools) sometimes – not always – give the opposite message. What does “who they are underneath” mean? In my opinion, it’s both their personality and values.
Cultural values – the values of our nation, local community or religious community – can help shape your child’s values but we should always encourage open discussion as some important values may not be reflected in our culture. For example, some religions and communities do not promote equality or the importance of diversity, which may be important values for your child.
Talk about it when someone else’s values differ. Help your child learn to respectfully consider other views so that they can make informed choices and can shift their values when new knowledge or experience comes along.
Step 3: Help Your Child Develop Their Own Values and Take Steps to Live Them
Children can be exposed to strong values from a young age, such as being kind. Label the values. “You helped Archie when he fell over. You are so kind.” It’s also a great idea to look out for storybooks which embody the values which you hope to encourage, such as these.
Create a “Values Mountain” or “Values Pathway” for each value. For example, Sophie draws a mountain and depicts herself a quarter of the way up. She often plays with a girl who is lonely in the playground. This is written on her picture, underneath where she stands on the mountain. A few days ago, she realises she stumbled down the mountain because she joined in with others teasing a boy for his new glasses. Sophie thinks about how she can move further up the mountain. She decides she will apply to be a “buddy” at school, helping younger children who don’t have anyone to play with. Values mountains are a powerful visual method to create a coherent sense of self, meaning and mental wellness.
Step 4: Praise and Celebrate When Children Live According to Their Values
Once, my son and three of his friends were sent to see the headteacher to be praised. In the playground, they had played with a younger boy who was on his own. I tried to make a big deal of this – telling his family members and showing my pride that he was living his values in proactive and positive ways. It’s really tough to celebrate this kind of achievement more than academic or sporting achievements, but more important than ever.
Step 5: The Biggest Challenge
The hardest thing of all is standing up for your own values when others are acting against them, for example bullies hurting someone verbally or physically. This takes huge courage but your child will be rewarded by developing a strong sense of self and knowing that they are fully living out their values. It is not always possible for a child to stand up for their values against peer pressure or bullies. Young people should not be self-critical if they don’t manage to do this every time. They should just look out for the next opportunity.
Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. Her work involves both therapeutic support and autism assessments. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years. In 2019 Lucy launched They Are The Future, a support website for parents of school-aged children.
Through TATF Lucy is passionate about giving practical, manageable strategies to parents and children who may otherwise struggle to find the support they need.
Lucy is a mum to two teenage children. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, children, rescue dog and three rescue cats. She enjoys caravanning and outdoor living, singing and musical theatre.
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