The connection between strong values and mental health: Why values are important for children.
It might surprise you that I connect values, morals and ethics with mental health.
Strong values give our lives meaning. Many psychologists (including myself) argue that people with a strong sense of meaning in their lives are more likely to have high levels of wellbeing; to feel happy and content with their lives. That’s why I would like to talk about why values are important for children.
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 there is too much emphasis on this and not enough on values. Here’s why:
Every day – both in my work as a psychologist and in my community – I hear about young people who are “lost”. They are anxious or depressed, they might be drinking or experimenting with drugs. Many young people don’t have a strong sense of what is important to them, so they will follow others, 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.
One form of therapy called ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) helps people to understand and move towards their own values, in order 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
Values give us a deeper sense of self. A sense that we know exactly what is important to us. They 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.
Developing values in your child: Parenting tips.
Step 1: Find out what your own values are. Then live them.
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.
At Everlief (the clinic I run with my husband), 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 continually teach your child 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. Be aware that your child needs this message loud and clear 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.
Talk about it when someone else’s values differ. Help your child learn to respectfully consider other views so that she can make informed choices and can shift her values when new knowledge or experience comes along.
Step 3: Help your child develop her 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.” You can 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.
Step 4: Praise and celebrate when children live their values.
Recently my son and three of his friends were sent to see the headteacher. 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. 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 not, for example against bullies. This takes huge courage but your child will be rewarded by developing a strong sense of self and knowing that she is fully living out her values.
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