What Happened To Childhood?

I’m as guilty as any parent of rambling on to my children about how tough my childhood was, “what do you mean you can’t walk to the bus stop, I walked to school EVERY DAY and IN THE FROST”.  Yet it has struck me this week that perhaps my children are experiencing a childhood more complex, more emotionally challenging and with more pressure than anything I went through.

Last week I read an emotional piece on Mamamia written by a mother who had just discovered her 13 year-old daughter was cutting herself. It’s easy to read something like that and justify to yourself “my daughters would never do that, I know my kids, I would realise before it got THAT BAD”. But then you wonder, would you? This mum had followed all the standard procedures when she allowed her daughter to have a Facebook account, “I have the passwords and do random checks” (oh God didn’t I just write that myself last week when discussing social media and teenagers). Her daughter started a secret Tumblr account where she posted pictures of her self-inflicted injuries.

It was World Suicide Prevention Day on Monday, Four Corners presented a piece on Youth Suicide, There’s No 3G in Heaven, which left most of the audience in tears.  As I watched  a mother outline every step she had taken to try to save her daughter, I couldn’t think of anything else she could have done. Mother/daughter bonding outings when she first started to withdraw, getting her to a GP, admitting her to psychiatric unit, taking her on a holiday to Bali to try to break the cycle. The child was surrounded by family who loved her, the Friends on Facebook were supportive and caring, boys she knew were worried about her and followed her to the railway tracks stopping the first suicide attempt, seeing her home safely. Yet in the end it wasn’t enough.

A teenager  very eloquently shared her story of how her depression made her feel at The Kids Are All Right comparing her battle with riding the waves  in an angry surf.

A quick check of the beyond blue website shows some pretty alarming statistics. Every day in Australia 65 people will end up in hospital as a result of self-harm, six will die as a result of suicide. Around 160,000 young people in our country are living with depression (and that doesn’t include those with anxiety disorders). One in four of our young people are likely to have some form of mental illness.

What happened? When did childhood become such a place of despair?

Professor Patrick McGorry a Youth Mental Health Expert says in the Four Corners piece that contributing issues could be the big social changes we have seen over the last couple of decades, more family breakdowns, more financial pressure on families, the fact that the pathways into adulthood are becoming less clear, less availability of unskilled work, a loss of a sense of purpose.

Looking at the pressures on families and teenagers in the modern world it is pretty intense when you break it down.

Uncertain employment, the bills that never stop arriving (and there’s more of them than in the past), tired parents trying to juggle.

Our children are the most over structured, over supervised generation in history yet they are still hiding their problems from parents.

When you think about it our teenagers are not just dealing with one boss a day but six or seven. Each 40 minutes they face another adult they have to try to please. I’m constantly amazed at how much homework has increased since my school days. Every assignment, project, assessment task, worksheet is another opportunity for stress. If you add an extra-curricular activity like sport or band, or a part-time job you are asking teenagers to develop a set of time-management and prioritising skills that many of us adults didn’t have until our second or third jobs.

Then there is the emotional issues of dealing with those tired parents, sibling rivalry, or moving between two homes in the event of a break-up. Not to mention the ups and downs of friendships.

It’s easy to criticise and belittle the pressure our children experience, but there is no doubt it is real and it is easy for them to feel powerless in their life. They can’t argue with the cranky teacher, they can’t force their distracted parent to help them with an assessment task they don’t understand, they can’t control what is said about them on social media.

In the end perhaps there isn’t just one particular reason for why we are seeing such high levels of mental health issues in young people. It’s not just the evils of Facebook, or the money worries of their parents, or bullying or pressures to achieve. Perhaps it all rolls into a ball of modern-day angst that gradually eats away at the more vulnerable child. We have to listen to the parents who are brave enough to share their painful experiences and learn the signs of depression and be vigilant in our relationships with our children.

Do you think the pressures on our kids are greater than in our childhood?

Tomorrow is R U OK? Day. To anyone who may be struggling please reach out for help  Lifeline 13 11 14  Kids Help Line 1800 55 1800.



  1. Debyl1 says

    I totally agree.Our teenagers are constantly surrounded by pressures we never had to deal with.They dont seem to have space just to be free and happy.
    My greatest worry when I was a teen was what to wear to a party.
    Three teens had committed suicide during my girls time at her high school.No one saw it coming.Frightening.
    All we can do is be there as much as we can and keep our eyes open wide for any signs and never ever say it wont happen to us.
    I love how you are such a hands on mama.You will make a difference in easing the pressures.xx

  2. says

    This is a wonderfully put together post janine. I’ve not been able to get my head around why these issues are more prevalent today but you’ve made some excellent points. I can’t say that no one ever cut themselves when I was at school, but I certainly had never heard of it until about 10 years ago. I know technology is a big difference between their teen years and ours, but there are other factors, as you’ve pointed out. I am aware of the added stress on my daughter moving between two houses, and her dad and I live very close to each other, are great friends, and we try to make it easy on her. Still, it’s just something extra in her life she needs to be organised for. I often wonder about her lack of homework, and sometimes mentally criticise the school because they don’t seem to set as much as other schools. What was I thinking? I should be glad she is not under too much pressure.
    Rachel @ The Kids Are All Right recently posted..From the mailbagMy Profile

    • says

      I couldn’t get my head around it either, I kept asking “why” and couldn’t get a clear answer. You are so lucky to be at a school with limited homework. Our school has a homework policy of one to one and half hours per day for years 7 & 8 and two hours per day for years 9 & 10. If you factor in soccer training or band practice (where we don’t get home until 6pm or 7pm) you then have a full day at school, one or one and half hours at extra curricular activity, dinner, homework we are talking about a 10pm finish with no real downtime (which we tend not to do so then we have teachers cranky that we haven’t done it, or we have to try to cram everything into the weekend to meet the assignment deadlines and we all end up very cranky). That’s a bloody long day. Certainly in our house homework is my daughter’s biggest stressor, and has a serious impact on family relationships and activities. I worry that by the time she gets to year 11 & 12 she will be burnt out. I don’t think it is any one thing that causes children to lapse into depression, it is a combination of everything, I just feel they are wearing pressures (long hours, bigger workload, tricky relationships etc) that you shouldn’t have to worry about until you are an adult.

  3. says

    My son’s teenage years were rough, but somehow we got through them and he’s now a happy, responsible father and husband. Part of that is sheer luck because there were a few years when anything could have happened.
    I wish there was a magic answer. Love and patience can help, but there’s no guarantee.
    My heart goes out to those parents who have lost children. Thank you for taking on such a difficult topic.
    Diana Douglas recently posted..It’s Thursday! Time to Light Up the Blogosphere! 9/6/12My Profile

    • says

      I think that was what was so disturbing to me about both the 4 Corners piece and the article at Mamamia. Those mums did everything I would have done. Yet somehow it didn’t work. I don’t know if I’m just looking at my childhood through rose coloured glasses, there were definitely children who were bullied, who were sad or who didn’t fit in, but the current day statistics just seem so large.

  4. says

    I think one problem is that kids today are not allowed to explore and try stuff on their own. Play is arranged and organized. TOys are played with in the expected ways. THey are given things too easily. When they get older they are not prepared for obsticles and dissapointment.

    Of course it is more complicated than this, but I think coddeling is a factor.
    cranky old man recently posted..Where Is The Change Bottle?My Profile

    • says

      I do agree with this view. Most people I know of my generation did have very bad things going on when they were kids, but somehow we were tough enough to deal with them, although they do still affect us, obviously. We never expected to be given things on a plate, we were brought up to think for ourselves, and to be versatile, and figure out our own ways of coping.

      Yes, children now are often organised so much – to fit into a system – but it is becoming obvious that there are things wrong with that system, so perhaps we should be helping our young people become more able to cope with challenges and changes instead of channelling them into specialisesd paths quite so much.

      By the way, we had 2hrs of homework time every day right through high school – because I was at boarding school there was no choice but to go to the homework period between supper and lights out – not to say that I actually DID homework though – I mostly wrote poetry instead!

      I used to swim 50 olympic lengths before school and before dinner every day, and do long distance running – but it was all very definitely MY choice to do these thngs. I think I still had some time to muck about with my friends, but I only got to see my parents one weekend a month from age 11 – I used to spend most of those weekends wandering about in the wilderness though, so it must have been when I was much younger that the free thinking and versatility stuff was instilled in me – unless I was just born that way.

  5. says

    I do agree that it is very hard for our young people these days, despite them not having to go through some of the things older generations had to endure, there is a whole host of other stuff to deal with, and not a lot to help them.
    I have devised an outline plan for a week long TRANSITIONS INTO ADULTHOOD” workshop which I have posted online at https://www.greatvine.com/downloads/transitions-into-adulthood-outline-guidelines-for-use-by-agencies-and-parents
    in the hope that people will use the idea to help make growing up easier – and I think it needs to be done in very early teens rather than leaving it too late, although late is better than never. Parents can use the ideas at home even.
    Here is the introductory description of the contents –

    “Agencies might like to use this concept, however, parents may also like to use some of these ideas at home.
    Ideally this would be done as a week away, in a country house setting, enabling an amazingly meaningful transition into adulthood through a powerful blend of ancient and modern wisdom, including diverse creative exploration and personal development concepts.
    To include sections on: identity & belonging, communication, exercise, healthy diets, finance, responsibilities, relationships, environment, feelings, and purpose or aims in life.
    Working with young people – taking them away in the early stages of teenage-hood, to do an “Initiation into Adulthood” week, which would include a wide range of activities such as communication, creative, and personal development workshops and therapeutic/meditation sessions, also including some shamanic vision questing type work to examine deeper levels of consciousness and self.
    The outcome being that they will have opened up, explored who they want to be, and identified things to take responsibility for and how to do this, as well as having affirmed that their transition into adulthood is something to celebrate.
    There is nothing in the UK to mark and explore this important transition, so our young people are left with uncertainty about themselves, their identity, the world around them, and how to find ways of dealing with it.
    It is a very personal journey, and young people will be left with a sense of meaningfulness instead of feeling disassociated and disaffected.
    It is a great strategy for prevention of teenage anti-social behaviour.
    Young People would also be given tools & techniques to help them on their journey and remind themselves from time to time of who they are and what they want to achieve. The focus is always on empowering each individual.”
    I’ve also written other articles about communication wiht teenagers for example, and my views are perhaps quite controversial, but I have worked successfully with young people for many years.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge