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?