What we are seeing in the media and particularly on the news at university campuses is a rise in mental and emotional disorders among our kids and young adults. We all want our children to grow up safe and happy, don't we? But what if the way we are parenting is making them the opposite? In unpicking this tangle of an issue I want to focus on the influences on a child's life, how a child's brain is affected by their activities, what is making kids and young adults so afraid and the characteristics we need to develop in our kids.
What is driving this phenomenon
My personal opinion is formed by my formal education as a Special Ed and High School Teacher and Counselor and from working with at-risk kids for almost three decades. It's not something I just came up with a minute ago, it's a problem I have observed for a long time. Thirty years means the kids I taught when I first graduated are now parents. What sort of parenting are they providing? What examples did these young parents have? The children of these parents are now finishing high school and starting university.
How can kids from loving families feel such despair?
What I've noticed is that more children are presenting with emotional despair, PTSD, suicidal tendencies and uncontrolled anxiety. In the last ten years as a teacher I was shocked at the number of quietly despairing children who had already contemplated how they would kill themselves. And these were kids of ordinary people, loving parents. Children feel less able to cope with basic elements of life. They feel powerless and overwhelmed and therefore are too reliant upon adults instead of figuring things out for themselves. Where is the resilience?
There's a prevalence of 'getting in touch with your feelings' and expressing them openly that probably came from a sensible idea but has led, in reality, to a preoccupation with one's own feelings to the expense of the feelings of others. I've also noticed a rise in anger issues and a blaming culture. None of these things enable children to develop healthy social habits or give them a positive sense of themselves and their abilities.
An unhealthy attitude shift
There's been an attitude shift and not just at the university level. What we have now is a tidal wave of intolerance -
- intolerance of others' opinions
- intolerance of difficulties they encounter
- intolerance of any form of hierarchy
- intolerance of authority
- intolerance of debate
- intolerance of political differences
- intolerance of others' feelings
My short answer is, yes, partly. Children in Primary school are spending a lot less time playing outside in the dirt and on grass, sorting out their differences, communicating directly, having to cooperate. Where are they? Indoors, staring at their phone or tablet, on Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat etc. or watching movies and TV shows. Among college students their virtual life can overtake their actual life, bringing with it all sorts of problems such as mobile phone addiction and sleeplessness. According to Professor of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, Wayne State University 1 in 5 university students suffers with anxiety and depression. And what does he put top of his list as a factor? Dangers in technology. In an insightful article, here he explains:
These habits begin at home when children are young. It's just too easy for parents to give in and let children sit there, unmoving, for hours. And this lack of interaction is having a huge impact, both mentally and physically.
A lack of physical movement is making our kids dumber
What a lot of people may not understand is that physical movement in childhood is vital to development. Brain and body. Kids learn so much from interacting with their environment - climbing trees, playing with water, jumping over obstacles, squeezing through tunnels. They become attuned to their body, which helps them control it and become aware of what is around them. Their brain grows faster and stronger from having to navigate obstacles, think about how to solve problems, work out the best option, interact with others. Their mental processing, and mostly importantly, self regulation, grows too:
- Which way would fit better?
- What is safer?
- How far can I lean without losing my balance?
- How strong am I?
- Can my arms support my weight?
- If I pedal harder will I make it up the hill?
- If I rest a bit I can then keep going
- Should I share this?
- Does he/she need help getting up?
- How far can I throw this?
- How can I make sure he/she catches it?
- What's that noise?
- How can we cooperate so we both get what we want?
Daniel Goleman, in his ground breaking book, Emotional Intelligence, says: "...how crucial it is for social competence to notice, interpret, and respond to emotional and interpersonal cues." This you cannot learn from chatting online and using emojis! In fact, emojis were created because people were misinterpreting each other online, due to the virtual communication, by its very nature depriving users of the vital body and facial cues of others which make up 70% of human interaction.
I support the idea of protest against injustice, of course I do. But what I am noticing now is the aggressive intolerance of young adults to anything that they don't agree with. The anger and hatred is so powerful! And misguided. Guest speakers have had to be escorted safely off campus by police. Students have tried to sue other students for simply using campus resources they wanted segregated for a particular group. Ironically, in the name of 'tolerance' more rifts are appearing, more delineations, groups and identities separate from the rest. Being 'special and different' has become an obsession. Being angry at someone has become the norm. Saying whatever you like without allowing others the same right has become acceptable. I've witnessed outrageous, infantile public behaviour that left me shaking my head in disbelief.
The expectation seems to be that everyone must think the same, that no one is allowed to discuss or debate or present their ideas rationally, calmly and intelligently. I hear statements like: "You can't say that!" and "That's offensive!" and my absolute favourite: "You can't say that!"
I've seen 'protests' used as a form of suppression of free speech and the free flow of ideas. It's a new form of fascism, by people who claim to be fighting fascism! Hilarious really, if it wasn't so dangerous. The sheer audacity of some of the students who elect themselves moral judge of others beggars belief. And unfortunately, the rise of Political Correctness has created and nourished this monster.
In their brand new book, The Coddling of the American Mind, moral psychologist Jonathon Haidt and free speech lawyer Greg Lukianoff discuss an interesting paradox that is emerging in American universities; a campus radicalism which fuses fragility with extreme intolerance. This generation has been brought up protected and coddled but has this produced young adults who protect and coddle others? The opposite is true. Their intellectual energy has been misdirected into an inward facing philosophy. Inner rage is surfacing, looking for a target and any target will do. Instead of uniting for a cause that actually produces something positive for society, the focus seems to be upon ripping everything apart. Instead of feeling strong and independent, confident in their own thoughts but OPEN TO OTHERS' OPINIONS we end up with rage, irrational behaviour and, to put it bluntly, self centred, attention seeking behaviour and an overriding fear of practically everything that is becoming ubiquitous.
So why are these young adults so angry and afraid?
It comes back to parenting, to the messages they received growing up from school, the media and peers. This generation grew up with Facebook, fake news, an obsession with looks that borders on hysteria and a declining sense of decorum, modesty, thoughtfulness of others and a sense of duty to society. This generation has whatever they want, just one click away. They've been sitting there in the corner chatting online, inside the virtual world instead of being out in the real world, coping with reality. Their expectations are therefore warped by this artificial world. Their sense of their place in the broader society is warped.
When I ask kids what they want to do when they grow up/leave school quite a few lately have said "Social Justice." I respond with, "That's not an actual job, it's an idea. What do you want to be?" They are fed a diet of fighting against every different opinion, without regard to evidence, proof or debate. I was gobsmacked when my kid came home from school one day spewing hatred about the Prime Minister. When I challenged the assumption and asked for proof she had very little understanding (of course) of BOTH sides of the issue they had apparently 'discussed' at school. She came home with blind vitriol, instead of respect for the office of Prime Minister. The hatred she displayed was quite alarming. It's not a healthy questioning of authority as part of a democratic society. And the effect has perhaps escaped the notice of teachers/adults - if a child can't feel safe in the knowledge that the leader of their country, the adult at the highest level, is competent and respected, what hope do they have of feeling confident about their community, their school, their family?
A similar over-the-top reaction was evident the day Donald Trump was declared the new USA President. My child, who lives in Australia mind you, came home visibly distressed, saying Donald Trump was going to kill people and blow up the world. I patiently explained that Trump had won a democratic election, that Americans wanted a change, that there were issues we didn't understand because it's not our country and that it was none of our business. I assured her that no one was going to blow up her world, that she was safe. It begs the question: did she get these ideas from her teacher? Doubtful. The media and other kids? Highly probable.
So if the media are deciding how a child feels about themselves and their world, and the media is driven by appealing to our baser instincts, catastrophising for money, of course children are going to be anxious! Have you watched the news lately? Have you seen any music videos lately? Have you seen what kids are saying to each other online lately? What they're watching?
It's not uncommon for me to go to a cinema to watch a film rated MA (15 years +) and see young kids in the audience. I was absolutely horrified recently to see the trailer for a new MA rated movie, supposedly a comedy, with clearly adult content and, of all things, Muppets. Yep, you read that correctly. Muppets. So, I'm wondering just which audience is this film made for? Young kids are going to beg to see it, because it's got harmless 'Muppets' they recognise from Sesame Street. Movie ratings are decided by a panel of our peers for very good reasons - to protect children from things they don't yet understand and yet parents ignore them. The moviemakers know that children are going to be attracted to seeing this adult content movie but they make it anyway. So it's up to parents to put on the brakes and make an ethical decision for their child. But are they?
We have a situation now where children as young as five have body image issues. Where does that come from? I can't see the average mum looking down their nose and making snide comments about their five year old's weight, can you? But glamourising the 'perfect' body and face is a big part of almost every reality show on TV, in every magazine on display in the newsagent.
Parents, I believe, give in too early to the incessant demands for a) a phone and b) unsupervised internet access. Both of these are disastrous. We are not born with built-in filters. This is a skill we learn. Hopefully from our parents. What parents are doing is allowing their kids to make the important decisions, thinking this is giving them responsibility, when it is in fact the parents' responsibility to keep them away from harmful online influences and teach them how to manage their online habits. In any case, why does a child of nine need a phone? They are always under the care and supervision of adults, whether it's at home, at school or on the bus in between. A phone is primarily for communication. But these days it's used as a babysitter. The result is kids become preoccupied with the minutiae, the tiny unimportant aspects of life, such as what people are wearing and saying. This affects how kids see and value themselves. And it's rarely a positive influence.
It's well documented that when children are exposed to violent content, it becomes reflected in their behaviour. Of course it does! Otherwise advertisers wouldn't be making gazillions every day. What we watch becomes part of us.
I believe we're not adequately preparing them for responsible adult life. One of the most important aspects of responsible adult life is respect for others, particularly for authority. Sure, it's fine to challenge the status quo when required. Otherwise we wouldn't have the female vote. But at some stage you have to just knuckle down and get on with living your life and mind your own business. Our job as parents isn't easy, but no one else should be doing it for us.
As E.D. Hill, journalist and mother of eight children says in her excellent book, I'm Your Parent, Not Your Friend :
"After decades of experts telling us to raise our children in the opposite way than our ancestors, because 'it's better for the child,' we are struggling with problems they never expected. The theories of kids have greater autonomy from their parents, wearing clothing that expresses their individuality; attending open, non-judgemental schools and receiving unconditional approval have been an abysmal failure. The result is increasingly violent juvenile crime, extreme disobedience, staggering rates of depression, millions of children on medicine to help them behave normally, and skyrocketing obesity." (p.200)
My view is, by the time your child finishes school they need to have these basics:
- Social aptitude. Being able to read social cues, understand the 'feel' of a situation by noticing body language and facial/voice cues of others is extremely important for not just everyday life, but for functioning in the working environment as well as intimate relationships.
- Personal care. This doesn't just mean showering! It means knowing how to cook proper healthy meals for yourself, keep your living environment clean and tidy, disposing of your rubbish thoughtfully etc. Dressing appropriately!
- Manners. Being thoughtful of others, showing care and concern, (even if you don't agree with their ideology!) Basic politeness, especially in public spaces!
- Conflict resolution. Respect means we can agree to disagree. Shake hands and walk away. You don't get to decide what other's think and feel! There are often two sides and it's important to understand both. Intelligent, rational people are interested in understanding views different to their own. It makes for a more well rounded person and more cohesive society.
- Respectful of authority and public amenities. Everywhere you go, every public amenity you use, whether its a train, a bus station, a road, a toilet, a hospital or a library, has been built from tax dollars paid by working citizens. The people in charge of the enormous task of delivering those services, human though they are, deserve our respect and compliance. Trashing public amenities is kicking tax payers in the face.
- Have goals for yourself. Immediate and long term planning, working towards goals, having a positive attitude, not waiting for someone to provide what you need. Save up! Have a plan for your life and think about steps to get there.
- Personal attitude. Have a positive attitude about yourself, be proud of your achievements, continue to grow and learn about life, become the best human being you can be. Be humble when it's appropriate! Be prepared to change your beliefs as more information comes to light. Have an open mind to other ideas. Be positive towards others and their achievements too.
- Character. Put time, thought and effort into developing your character. What kind of person do you want to be? Whom do you admire? What positive characteristics do you mean to develop in yourself? How will you contribute to society? What positive influence will YOU have on others.
The most powerful influence in a child's life is still their parents. And yet many abdicate this responsibility, handing it over to TV shows, movies, and worst of all ADVERTISERS, who get to choose what influences a child's thinking, how they feel about themselves and their world, what news they see, what music they hear, whose opinion they follow. What we see and hear becomes part of our thinking, which then influences our actions. Who we associate with changes us, even as adults. Our kids must develop the skills to differentiate between healthy and unhealthy influence. And that is our job to teach them. We must provide good role models for them to copy, because copy they will. The result will be a young adult who knows who they are, is confident in their abilities, is resilient in the face of hardship, is respectful of others, is polite and well mannered, acts responsibly and intelligently and is on the road to their goals and dreams with hope in their heart and a plan of action.
This young adult won't have the time or the heart for slamming others. This young adult will know where to get help if they need it but will be focussed upon striding forward to achieve their goals.
The most powerful antidote to anxiety and distress is hope. Hope in oneself. Hope and trust in others.