From our adult tinted glasses, we like to assume that the young have it so easy. We talk about the good old days of our childhood when we had no care or the tedious responsibilities of adulthood to weigh us down. What we would not give to go back to that ‘carefree age’ again except that in reality we would not. Not if we really knew what it is to be a kid these days.
Let’s take a typical kid in middle or high school. Every day for her is like walking on a tightrope as she balances what is expected from her at school and from her family. So on one hand, there is the daily struggle of homework, submissions, projects, exams, or the dreaded countdown to “The Boards” and staying on the right side of her teachers’ good books. And on the other, there is the inevitable load of her family’s expectations, their demands and dreams from her.
Along with bilateral balancing on the tightrope, visualise her with another vertical pressure. Her desperate attempt to keep her perch on the social hierarchy which depends so much on her looks, body shape (and the inevitable body shaming if she is not thin enough), what she wears, how she talks, how she walks, what music she listens to, her family background. Then there is the preoccupation about finding a boyfriend (you are obviously a loser if you don’t have one), split-ups, rumours that go viral and what not. I remember a 15-year-old telling me once, “Life was so simple for you when you were my age. If you had a fight with a friend in school, you would go back home and by the next day you would be ready to forget about it and start afresh. However, nowadays we are all connected 24X7 and everything is discussed, analysed on WhatsApp, Instagram, Snapchat so many times. By the next day a simple fight has morphed into something so ugly and warped!” Let us admit it, for a typical teenager, day to day life is at times like getting ready for war every day.
Now you might think that I am taking a very bleak view of what our children are going through. But hear me out. WHO (World Health Organisation) estimates that one in four young Indians face mental health conditions. It is estimated that 50% of the mental health conditions begin before the age of 14 years. In India, suicide is the leading cause of death in the youth. A student commits suicide every hour. I see children as young as 10-year-old who take to cutting themselves as a way of coping with their emotional distress. I am sure each one of you reading this would know at least one child or a teenager who is struggling with some emotional problem.
Many mental health professionals refer to this problem as an ‘epidemic’ in the young. However, I would disagree with that on two counts. One — epidemic implies that it is an illness or a disease which it is not. It is an extremely complex problem within our sociocultural context which needs a nuanced understanding. Two — it absolves us of the collective responsibility we need to take
Most children go through difficult times emotionally even if it does not reach the intensity of depression, anxiety, eating disorder etc. It could be anywhere in the spectrum from difficulty in keeping up with academics, problem making friends, heartbreak, worries about future, being witness to family conflict or financial troubles, to bullying, being isolated, struggling with their sexual identity or gender, body shaming to sexual abuse. Being a kid is not all fun and games any more.
As parents it is difficult to see our children go through a difficult time and in our frustration or desperation we might end up reacting in ways that do not work. These are what I called 3Ds:
Dismissal: It is so easy for us to trivialise the problems our kids are going through as they do not seem serious enough — fall out with friends, break up with boyfriend, acne on the face. Big deal! Except that it is a big deal for them and telling them, ‘Stop complaining all the time’, ‘This is so silly’, ‘You just need to be stronger,’ will not help at all. There is an implicit judgment, placing fault and not really tuning into their struggles that can make them distance themselves from us.
Defining: Another thing that does not help is when we start defining the person with the single story of their problem, ‘He is lazy,’ ‘She is always angry’, ‘She is a drama queen and always looking for attention’. Just pigeon holing and labelling is convenient for us as we really do not need to bother to dig deep to understand the nuances and texture of our child’s struggles.
Dumping: One convenient dumping ground we have found for all our children’s problems is electronics. ‘His problem is that he is addicted to video games’, ‘She is obsessed with social media’. Though I would be the first to admit that electronics and video games have had a disturbing impact on our lives (not just children’s). Social media in teenage is where the images and reputations are created and shredded.
But that is definitely not the root of the problem. The core issue is that children (and adults) are feeling more and more disconnected and lonely and they are seeking social media as a way to fill the vacuum. However, blaming it all on social media or screens is again taking a very simplistic perspective.
Now let’s look at some ways that might actually help our children as they navigate their way through difficult times: ‘I see you’: They need us to be there listening to them without judgment, censure or advice. This is really tough as many times their sharing could be extremely painful for us and immediately we might go into the mode of, ‘Let me tell you how to fix it’ or ‘You need to change your attitude.’ This will not help as first they just want us to ‘see’ them compassionately with all their struggles, conflicts, loneliness and just hold their pain with our complete presence.
‘Tell me how I can help’: We hear our kids have a problem and we want to jump into a full rescue mode. But hold on and instead ask them how they think you could help. If they feel they are not being judged or lectured they might want to discuss their problem with you openly and also be open to brainstorming ways to manage it better. Or it could be that all they want from us is make it a little easier for them at home, ‘I wish you would not scold me when I don’t understand math’ ,‘Can you not rush me so much in the morning?’
‘I have your back’ — This is a very powerful message to give to our children. As they go through life, facing different problems — some small, some large, some that will hurt them or even make them fall hard. It is this message that they will carry in their heart that will make them rise stronger every time and stride forward knowing that no matter what happens —we have their back.
(Dr Shelja Sen is therapist, writer and co-founder of Children First, a child & adolescent mental health institute)