Moral panic seems to be hardwired into our DNA and each generation worries about the one coming next. More often than not, this fretting is useless and unfounded, and the kids end up turning out all right.
But every now and then it’s time to hit the panic button and ask serious questions about how families, and members of society more widely, are raising our young people and whether we’re helping them or harming them.
Every community in Ireland has been touched by tragic events like young people taking their own lives. A teacher friend of mine paints a picture of today’s children as the most physically safe but mentally fragile generation she has ever encountered in almost 40 years in the classroom.
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It’s more than a hunch or nostalgia for the good old days, when adults were unquestionably in control and children understood that it was better to be seen and not heard.
A YouGov poll published in Britain this week reveals that the number of youngsters who think that life is simply not worth living has doubled in a decade to one in five. Teenage suicides reflect that – they’ve nearly doubled over the same period in the UK.
In Ireland, 70 schoolchildren died by suicide last year. Unicef ranks Ireland as having the fourth-highest teen suicide rate across the European Union. The charity found that 22.6pc of children between 11 and 15 reported that they had experienced two or more psychological symptoms of ill-health more than once a week.
The National Self-Harm Registry Ireland – a national system of population monitoring for the occurrence of hospital-treated self-harm – recorded 11,600 presentations to hospital due to self-harm last year, involving 9,103 people.
The highest rates of self-harm were consistently recorded in young people. Since 2007, the rate of self-harm among young people has increased by 21pc. The increase has been worse among females and the age of onset of self-harm is decreasing.
Charities consistently report an increase in the number of young people seeking help for mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.
Critics bemoan what they describe as the ‘snowflake generation’, shielded from the rough edges of life by helicopter parents and teachers tiptoeing around their sensitivities. Faced with challenges and adversity, the theory goes, the young people of today reach hysteria before melting.
It’s over-baked as a theory and can’t deflect from the reality of mental health issues, but there are serious questions to be asked about why young people are less resilient and seem less able to cope with the ups and downs of life.
Are we failing to look after them or protecting them too much?
Social media is certainly an issue, and the nature of life online often magnifies and deepens feelings of anxiety and unhappiness. The felt pressure to have an endlessly awesome life and chronicle it all on YouTube or Instagram leaves one group of teenagers exhausted as they keep up the pretence, and another group upset that their life is not as good as they perceive others’ to be.
But social media and the web make up only one part of the picture that is, I believe, a symptom of a much deeper problem. We are simply not teaching children self-reliance in the way that we once did.
In a bid to avoid stigma, fragility and vulnerability are often celebrated. Everyday melancholy – part-and-parcel of everyone’s life regardless of what they post on Facebook – is not an illness and should not be medicalised.
Time-poor parents who often feel guilty about not being around as often as they would like to be believe that the best way to compensate is to refuse their child nothing. That’s why we see seven-year-olds with smartphones and teenagers wearing designer dresses.
Parents anxious that delayed gratification will push their youngster over the edge are increasingly unable to say ‘no’ and cave in to often-exaggerated demands.
The consequences? Many young people never experience disappointment or learn to cope with unrealised desires. An inflated concern about damaging a young person’s self-esteem leaves many parents feeling that they can’t say boo or offer even the mildest piece of advice without it turning into a row of epic proportions.
Being disappointed or feeling unfulfilled is part of life from time to time – the longer we try to keep children from experiencing such feelings, the more fragile they become when trouble comes their way. The best thing we can do for young people is to help them cope with adversity rather than bubble-wrapping them or medicating teenage angst. Anxiety and stress can be very good things and help us achieve goals.
The wider collapse in authority across the Western world has also crept behind all of our hall doors. Parents and other responsible adults such as teachers need to be able to reassert their authority in a way that helps young people understand that there are sensible boundaries in life.
I am not dismissive of the very real difficulties some experience, and teenagers and young people deserve to have specialised mental health care. Resources at the moment are desperately inadequate. No one wants a culture where professional help is only available at the point of absolute crisis, but nor should we pathologise the ups and downs of everyday life.
Unless we make resilience the top priority, we run the risk of cultivating vulnerability and making our young people lifelong children, people who never have to grow up because they are not taught self-reliance and, crucially, not taught how to endure unhappiness.
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