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Top doctor Peter Szatmari ’70 wows parents at annual luncheon

image006 (1)There’s nothing like a truly relevant speaker to guarantee a great audience. Such was the case with this year’s annual parent luncheon at the Estates of Sunnybrook on May 8. A record-breaking crowd showed up to hear Peter Szatmari ’70 share parenting tips and insight into youth mental health.

The take-away messages were of huge value as Szatmari tailored his talk specifically for the Upper Canada College parent community. He’s both head of child and youth mental health at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and the Hospital for Sick Children. He’s also director of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Toronto. (Joining Szatmari at the head table was his daughter Josie, an occupational therapist.)

“It was extraordinary that, as busy as he is, Dr. Szatmari carved out the time to come and address the UCC‎ community during Ontario Mental Health Week,” says head of the Parents’ Organization Barbara Bottini. “So many parents were eager to hear him speak and the content of his message was welcomed by all.”

It was quite a revelation to hear statistics relating to the prevalence of mental health issues among youth. For one, of all adults with a mental disorder; half of those diagnosed had it emerge before age 15. As well, children comprise 20 per cent of the population — and 20 per cent have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder. That being so, Szatmari stresses the importance of early intervention because of the correlation between childhood mental illness and increased risk of adult medical issues including obesity and substance abuse.

Parents found it most valuable that Szatmari pinpoints the top types of stress that lead to mental health issues including parent-child conflict, marital conflict, conflict with teachers and peers, and major life events such as moving and bereavement. However, he also emphasized how one’s own inner resilience has a huge effect on the degree to which one succumbs to external pressures. Interestingly, he stressed the protective and self-comforting factors of developed skills such as sports, art and hobbies. And lots of sleep.

While he also talked about how to navigate the health care system and how to evaluate if your child is receiving good service, perhaps the highlight of the presentation was his tips for parents in dealing with youth. They included avoiding anger and expressing disapproval in a calm manner; being authoritative but not authoritarian; having “lines in the sand” but lots of negotiation within that circle; increasing privileges and responsibilities with age; and recognising that punishments don’t work but a brief loss of privileges and delay of rewards do.

He wrapped up with some words of reassurance for parents. “Kids differ in their natural abilities. [A child] doesn’t always have to be the best; sometimes good enough is good enough.” As well, some kids aren’t on the fast track and will surprise you. “It ain’t over till it’s over. Kids have their own developmental timetable, success often comes after high school.”