Children need mum and dad for best mental health

  • eff Kennett
  • From: Herald Sun 
  • September 09, 2011 12:00AM
Family
A recent report blames sliding marriage rates for the decline of the wellbeing of Australia’s children over the past decade.Herald Sun

THERE is no substitute for parents of both genders. Happy heterosexual marriages are the best environment for the mental health of children.

Many people think – but have been afraid to express it – that married couples in a loving relationship provide our children the best opportunity to prepare for a fulfilling and happy life.

A report released this week, titled For Kids’ Sake and authored by Professor Patrick Parkinson of the University of Sydney, is a sober reminder of this.

It says, in part: “The wellbeing of Australia’s children and young adults has declined sharply in the past decade, and …sliding marriage rates are partly to blame”.

During my 11-year leadership of beyondblue, the national depression initiative, I have become increasingly concerned that so many children starting out in primary school are already stressed and anxious – at only five years old.

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Sadly, in most cases this stress and anxiousness is a direct result of the family learning pattern many children receive and observe at home.

I further contend that the first seven years of a child’s life are the most important as this sets the values for children for the rest of their lives.

Clearly the best environment in which to bring a child into the world is a stable, loving environment in which a male and female are married to each other.

The existence of both genders is the environment in which that child will live his or her life — in a wider community where both genders are almost equally represented.

A loving environment, where the young child observes good practices, is more important than any instruction that attempts to set values such as respect, honesty, punctuality, hard work, reward and, importantly, love.

The second point I would make is that when marriages break down and the children of that marriage are young, the breakdown can have a profound effect on the children of that marriage.

So often I have heard adults from a broken marriage respond: “They are handling it well,” when asked how the children are managing the break-up. Sadly, that is so often superficial.

While on the surface the children may be handling the break-up well, many are internally traumatised. That can lead to so many issues developing not only in the short-term but later in life.

Many adults I have spoken to about their depressive illnesses have referred back to an unhappy childhood and/or the separation of their parents.

Sadly, many adults take their marriage vows lightly. It is perhaps an indication of the plastic society we live in today, where everything is changeable and tradeable. When challenges arise, some people feel it is best not to work through them but to walk away from the responsibilities that are a part of every relationship.

With changes to family law in the 1970s, many marriages have become more easily disposable. This should never be the case, particularly when children are involved.

As adults I think it is incumbent on us to do all we can as parents to resolve issues within a marriage, in the interests of those we have seen fit to bring into the world. Or at least until they have reached a mature age to handle any separation of parents.

Clearly, where a marriage is irretrievable, there is perhaps no alternative to separation. As an indication of how seriously we at beyondblue take stress and anxiety among children, we have spent more than $15 million on research over the past 10 years. The by-product of this work helps in dealing with children’s mental health needs.

All of this is a major piece of work, and the KidsMatter initiative, concentrating on early childhood mental health, is now being rolled out throughout the country as quickly as possible.

Importantly, the KidsMatter Early Childhood program, for children between the ages of one and five, could prove to be the most significant work yet done by beyondblue. The trial is due to be concluded by the middle of next year, and it could prove to be profoundly important to those parents who have young children.

Many people ask me why there is so much stress, anxiety and depression in Australia, so often referred to as “the lucky country”. The answers are many, but one which is patently clear is the breakdown in marriages and the declining number of marriages within our society.

Professor Parkinson, in the recommendations within his For Kids Sake report, has strongly recommended that the Federal Government should fund many activities.

I have a concern with this approach because governments, federal and state, are already funding research and programs, and because such a recommendation again removes responsibility from individuals and attempts to transfer it to governments.

But governments are not the trend-setters in values, or good behaviour. We as individuals are, and we must again accept responsibility for ourselves, our behaviour and the examples we set for our children.

All we can do is give our children the best possible opportunity in which to start their lives – being part of a family that is based on a marriage, in a loving relationship, that stands the test of time.

Jeff Kennett is a former premier of Victoria

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