By Tanu Shree Singh
The last few months have been interesting. I have been touring with my latest book, Darkless and meeting children and grown-ups across cities during sessions. The conversations centre mostly around fears and anxiety but in the process, a lot of surprising things come up during and after the sessions. Sometimes they are downright alarming. At a recent literature festival, in fact, my friend Ritu Vaishnav related how a boy talked about what seemed like depression after a discussion around her fabulous new book, Inside a Dark Box. Both the books triggered thoughts that otherwise never see the light of the day. The children (and adults) walk around in their solitary dark clouds or boxes, never sharing or actively attempting to get out.
These are regular kids that we often see enjoying a good time in the playground, folding up paper planes and flashing the widest smiles. The smile hides a lot at times. Recently, during a session we got talking about bullying, and helpless, hesitant hands shot up when asked if they had ever been bullied or witnessed it. Even more worrisome were some of the issues they were bullied on. A boy stayed back after a session with teens. I could see his mother waiting outside the room. I could also see that she was worried. Once all the kids left, the boy continued to pretend to leaf through a book.
I approached him since he was clearly not going to make the first move. After much prodding and small talk around bullying, he confided that he was being bullied for being a virgin. I was stumped. ‘Ma’am, I don’t feel inclined to be in a relationship. All my friends have girlfriends and have…er…done it. They get nasty with me, try to hook me up. I don’t want this.’ He was silent for a few moments and then his voice dropped to a whisper, ‘Do you think there is something wrong with me?’ I was just thankful that this child spoke up. He was lucky to have a parent who heard him, who encouraged him to talk to another person, to ask for help. The fact that he had spoken to me on an earlier occasion probably eased the process. Nevertheless, he will find his way with some help now. While he smiled and waved as he left after a brief conversation, my thoughts shifted to all other children who might be going through the same.
Most children continue to live in their isolated boxes or keep walking in a cloud of darkness. As adults, we rarely normalise conversations on issues like depression, anxiety, bullying and definitely never about the big bad S word. In fact, nearly everything is brushed aside with a sigh and a classic one-liner, ‘it’s the age. Happens,’ or ‘never happened in our times.’ Instead if we were talk about sex, acknowledge and understand depression, listen to them about their fears and frustrations, things might get a tad better. Sometimes, all one needs is a space where they can speak up, share, listen to their own thoughts and figure out solutions all by oneself. They also need to know that we might not have the solutions but we are there for them.
As parents, the onus of creating such spaces, or at least trying to do so, is on us. The first time that the child shares school gossip about affairs, or their own crush, if we can keep the parental anxiety away and judgement in the back pocket, and just listen rather than giving our two bits about how they are too young or that school is for studying or more such pearls of compulsive parental wisdom, chances of the child coming back with problems are higher. However, if we close the lid with our usual parental panic, the children will obviously not approach us when they need counsel, a shoulder or a simple a pair of ears. And we lose out on the perfect opportunity to create that space filled with empathy and non judgemental listening where we are in no hurry to tell them what is ‘right’.
Instead, we end up creating a space of expected academic excellence. Our singular or at least chunk of focus remains on report cards since we firmly believe that their future depends on grades alone. We overlook the fact that the road ahead will anyway be difficult if other issues are not resolved and the child is left trying to make sense of the world through a fogged lens of expectations, moral high grounds, peer pressure and inner darkness; or worse, if the child succumbs to the pressures of being a virgin, a loner, overweight, underweight, fair, dark, or any shade in between or just being themselves.
The first step towards defogging that lens is to validate their feelings. It is okay to be a virgin, but the choice has to be theirs. It is essential that they understand the legal, emotional, and physical repercussions of early sex rather than focus only on social impact – be it an approval from peers or strong disapproval from the society at large. Similarly, it is okay to feel low, it is okay to be depressed, anxiety is normal too. All we need to learn is to recognise when the feelings of sadness, fear or anxiety start to interfere with regular life and we need help.
As adults, we need to realise that children are just little people with big feelings, just like ours. If we nip any conversation around sex by our higher moral grounds or negate the child’s sadness saying it is all hormonal, no one benefits. All we end up doing is giving the child a sturdier box to crawl in to, pushing him in a darker cloud. The boy who is withdrawing because his friends doubt his sexuality thanks to his disinterest in having sex just yet needs to know that he is okay. The girl who got laughed at for refusing a smoke needs the strength to stand her grounds. The boy who constantly gets ridiculed for refusing alcohol despite being in high school needs us to understand that it is not easy to resist peer pressure.
A ‘No’ takes a lot of effort and a constant push back is tiring. Our job as parents is not just to equip the child with a ‘no’, but also appreciate the strength it takes to be the odd one out, and understand the pain it causes. It is our job to help the child break the dark box and blow the cloud away. Also sometimes, all they need is for us to crawl in the box with them, hold their hand and quietly bear the burden of the cloud with them.
(The writer has a PhD in Positive Psychology and is a lecturer in psychology. She is also the author of the book Keep Calm and Mommy On. Listen to Season 1 and 2 of Tanu Shree Singh’s podcast podcast Difficult Conversations With Your Kids.)
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