There have been a plethora of books and articles written in the past few years about the lack of "resilience" among members of "Generation Y" (people born from approximately 1985 to 2000), what has caused it and what to do about it. But now, the millenials are starting to have their own children. How can they avoid the mistakes of their parents? Here are some tips:
1. Have more than one child and make sure that siblings aren't more than 3 or 4 years apart in age. I know this might not be feasible for all parents, but it is worth mentioning, because the advantages of siblings outweigh the negatives, and the advantages are significant.
Although some studies in the past indicated that only children have higher achievement, some studies also found a greater incidence of drug addiction among only children.
People who grow up with siblings learn crucial skills of negotiating, sharing, advocating and taking turns, earlier and more consistently than only children do. More importantly, a sibling close in age is a "buddy" who provides peer identification, which is important for personality development. Only children often feel lonely because school friends and play dates aren't a substitute for a sibling, and worse, when the parental marriage is dysfunctional, an only child can become a parent's best friend, an unnatural situation that interferes with personality development and in the worst cases leads to incest.
Although I've heard stories of dysfunctional sibling relationships (including abuse), the majority of my patients who have siblings have benefitted from those relationships. Siblings too far apart in age often don't function as siblings, however, with the older sibling often taking on a quasi-parental role that may not be appropriate.
2. Allow your child to engage in unstructured, unsupervised play. It really is true that hovering parents interfere with a child's developing sense of autonomy. Let young children play by themselves (or with siblings) in their rooms, and let school age children play by themselves in the backyard, if you have one.
3. Send your child to sleep-away camp if you can afford it. Do this when your child is 11 or 12 years old. Sleep-away camp can be a way for only children to get some of the benefits that children with siblings get. A good sleep-away camp offers challenging outdoor activities that build confidence.
4. Remember that academic achievement alone doesn't guarantee success in life. The Unabomber went to Harvard. Prestigious academic degrees don't guarantee mental health or social functioning. I have found that many of my patients who are the children of immigrants were kept home after school to study, study, study. The end result is often anxiety disorders and worse. Just today I read an article in The New York Times about the skyrocketing rate of adolescent anxiety disorders, with one teen profiled taking 3 Advanced Placement classes as a high school junior. I don't understand why this is allowed by the school, much less by the parents.
5. Be a role model of mental health. The best way to be a good parent is to be a healthy parent. Parents with untreated depression or those who engage in substance abuse tend to have emotionally disturbed children. Nine times out of ten, when I worked with children, I found that there was either abuse or neglect going on or a parent had an untreated disorder. Unfortunately the media sometimes give the impression that children's emotional disorders are purely genetic, purely socially constructed, or unfathomable, and this isn't true.