Are children today getting enough ‘me’ time?
Learning how to be happy in your own company is vital to mental health, writes Alana Kirk
When a child is bored, they are meeting themselves at some level for the first time. Photograph: Getty Images
They say silence is golden and, as any parent will attest, it is often elusive as well. Most of us become crafty creators of adult ‘me’ moments – those treasured times of pause, when we shut out the noise and try to grab a little perspective with a cup of coffee or glass of wine. But how many of us ensure that our children get the same?
Increasingly, research is showing a dangerous deficit of constructive alone time in children’s lives, highlighting the importance of productive solitude.
‘Down’ time has long been seen as necessary for a heathy mind and body. It was the Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus who made the distinction between a negative type of isolation such as forced removal from others and the strength that comes from relying on one’s own mental resources. But over the last few decades, solitude has become confused with loneliness.
As such, it has often been seen as damaging, especially in relation to children. In these tech-drenched, immediate-gratification days, children are often deemed to be in constant need of entertainment. How can a child be taught that spending time alone to reflect is actually a positive – and necessary – experience?
“Children aren’t allowed or [don’t] feel entitled to the time they need to process their own working model,” explains Mark O’Dwyer, a psychotherapist and child and adolescent play therapist. It is one of the ways you discover your individuality, but such vital time for reflection is often being taken away from children today. “If a child needs to take time to think, to ponder something, it’s not really encouraged.”
We’ve all been asked repeatedly if we are okay when we are quiet, with contemplation rarely acknowledged as a positive activity. Yet it is an essential ingredient for creativity and the processing of thoughts. Research proves that solitude, and being comfortable with it, is crucial for children and adolescents, helping them to focus, be more creative and find emotional stability and peace in a natural mindfulness.
Between scheduled after-school and weekend activities and technology dominated lives where children are constantly connected to others, the lack of solitude is even more pronounced. There are ongoing debates about the correct quota of screen time for children, but no discussion about setting aside time for self-reflection.
“We must give children the opportunity to be alone, restless, and dare I say bored, with their own thoughts and imaginations,” advises O’Dwyer. “Then they will learn to be comfortable with themselves.”
Instead, ‘time out’ is often doled out as a punishment, with commands to ‘Go to your room’ giving the impression that being alone is not a pleasure to be enjoyed, but a punishment to be endured. Alone is not the same as loneliness yet they have become synonymous.
These days extroverts are deemed more socially acceptable than introverts. “Introverts are not seen as the norm,” explains O’Dwyer. “Often they are merely being reflective in an intellectual way, but with the onslaught of social media, the bar has been raised. What you look like, sound like, who you hang out with and what you wear is so important that to have a reflective personality is often seen negatively.”
Living at speed
For our children today, life is moving at a rapid pace. Speech is even shortened to letters – G for good, and K for okay – and emojis representing expression of feelings. They are overactivated, with many parents working longer hours, meaning a lack of contact time, which is collectively reflective.
“It’s so important to find regular opportunities to get everyone to check in together. Not just quickly asking them how their day was, but really talking together so they get a sense of other’s lives,” explains O’Dwyer. “This gives them a stronger sense of family, a unit that strengthens them.”
If solitude can be associated with the idea of concentration, listening to or playing music or painting, where a child is perhaps alone but comfortable in themselves and happy in their own company, it will give them a much better chance of seeing it as a positive thing. Boredom can be that threshold when they start being uncomfortable with being on their own, but teaching them to push through the boredom to enjoying solitude can have huge mental health benefits.
“Is it boredom or frustration?” asks O’Dwyer. “Or do they want the next new thing? Teaching children about delayed gratification so that it becomes part of the world they are managing, helps them learn how to manage sadness, guilt, frustration and other difficult feelings.”
When a child is bored, they are meeting themselves at some level for the first time. “They’re feeling their own feelings, they’re hearing themselves and they call themselves bored. It’s such an important experience. If you don’t teach your children to be alone, they’ll only know how to be lonely.”
Research shows that learning about solitude is a fundamental part of early development, and parents shouldn’t feel the need to constantly pacify children with screen and attention. Learning to be alone, in productive and comfortable solitude, is especially important for adolescents. In our overconnected world, we adults know how important self-connection is. But we also need to be telling our children that it’s okay to have ‘me’ time too.
TIPS FOR GIVING YOUR CHILD SPACE
o Encourage ‘me time’, pondering, thinking time as positive experiences
o Talk about the benefits of switching off, even for 10 minutes. If it terrifies them, ask them why?
o Never use solitude as a punishment but extoll it as a pleasure
o Agree on set family times when everyone gets ‘me’ time
o Make sure your children’s time is not overburdened with scheduled activities