Psychology
11 Sep 2018

Every desperate teenager is a sign of our collective failure

If teenagers quarrel, can’t communicate and lack emotional intelligence it’s not because at some point in history they started being born like this. It’s because we began raising them this way.

Wysokie Obcasy
Magdalena Karst-Adamczyk Wysokie Obcasy, Global
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The following fragments are from Magdalena Karst-Adamczyk’s interview with Lucyna Kicińska which appeared in the Polish weekly  “Wysokie Obcasy” in June 2018.

Lucyna Kicinska: Everything that happens to children is the result of an adult's, deliberate or accidental, decision. Every teenage suicide attempt is a defeat by the adult world -- not only by their parents or teachers -- by all of us. If teenagers quarrel and hurt each other, can’t communicate and lack emotional intelligence, it’s not because at some point in history they started being born like this. It’s because we began raising them this way. We haven't been paying enough attention to them.

Bringing up a child is the process of teaching and setting boundaries over time as the child grows. Yet now we’re missing something crucial -- many children don’t understand limits because their parents, absorbed in their own matters, never talk or explain and fail to react appropriately to children’s problems.

Magdalena Karst-Adamczyk:  I have the impression that we, as adults, are not exactly understanding when it comes to teenagers' problems.

Yes, and I have more than 1 million phone calls and around 50,000 texts and messages from children seeking help to prove this. This volume of communication is proof that parents, teachers, and educators are not meeting children’s needs.

Adults today are often too focused on themselves and their own problems. They do not see the warning signs, and above all -- they do not know their own children.

MKA: Parents often blame every teenager's problem on one factor -- rebellion.

Rebellion has nothing to do with it. Even if a teenager has a tendency to rebel against adults -- and it is worth knowing that only 20-30% of teens are truly like this -- if the parents have a good, healthy relationship with the child then all is not lost. The teenager may rebel and do things that adults do not approve of, but they will also know the boundaries and communicate with their parents.

Adolesence often brings about changes in the child that self-involved parents were not expecting to deal with. We often hear about this from parents on our call lines, as well as during trainings, workshops and seminars. No matter what the problem is -- early sexual initiation, depression, drugs or internet abuse -- the parents say, "help me, I do not recognize my child anymore." But it's not like aliens replaced the children overnight. The fact that parents do not recognize their children today is a sign that they have neglected the process of "knowing your child" over the last 5-10 years.

MKA: How can we build our relationships with our children to make their teenage years safer and less traumatic?

It’s a long and laborious process. From the earliest age we should talk to our child and encourage them to talk to us. When they open up, it’s important to listen, react and show interest. Kids have to know that we care about them and the easiest method for this is a direct conversation. A child needs to be aware that, no matter what, they can always come to us and share their troubles.

Children who call our helpline often hear from their parents or teachers: “Pull yourself together”, “Stop feeling sorry for yourself”, and “You’re only seeking attention”.

Parents also make a big mistake when they give the automatic response: “I told you so”. They might be correct -- they might have warned and advised against it -- but is it really the right moment to bring it up? Isn’t it enough that the child is already feeling bad, guilty and is fully aware of their mistake? It’s time for support, understanding and consolation. The educational chat can wait.

MKA: Parents also often say: “Why are you only telling me about this now?”

For children this sounds like a rejection. The word “why” suggests criticism, accusation and disappointment. I can only guess that by asking “why”, parents are trying to say: “I feel bad that I failed to notice your problem earlier”, “I wish I’d shown more interest”, and “I’m sorry you had to deal with it all by yourself”. But the child hears: “You’ve let me down, When the matter wasn’t that complicated yet, I could have helped you. But now it’s too difficult”.

MKA: And how about when parents demand: “Promise us you’ll never do this again”.

They mean well, but such promises are never the solution. Kids can’t control their depression. When they hear such a request, they feel isolated and lose faith in their parents.

Some parents use threats: “If you try to do it one more time, we’ll go to a psychologist”. They use a psychologist appointment as a punishment, even though that’s where children should be seeking help and guidance.

MKA: What reaction do children truly need from their parents?

Warmth, compassion, and attention. They don’t need parents to work out their problems. If they confess that they’ve been hurt, it’s not because they want their parents to go to the police -- although that’s how it usually ends.

Parents should ask what the child needs. Too often they presume to know it.

MKA: Many parents feel the pressure to come up with a ready solution. For them, questions about their child's needs are a sign of weakness and helplessness.

Every situation can be resolved in a number of different ways -- the essential point is to choose the best option for our child.  

MKA: In terms of communication with children, should parents monitor children’s activity online?

It’s worthwhile to teach our child how to use the Internet and sit with them while they learn. Parental control applications and web content filter appliances, although useful, should only be treated as supportive tools. 

When we don’t pay attention to what our child is doing online, it’s as if we didn’t bother to check what he or she was up to at school or anywhere else. If our son decided to take off his clothes in a public place, wouldn’t we react? 

MKA: What are the consequences of children online who are unsupervised and have unlimited access?

Many of the kids calling us have a problem with expressing their feelings. When we ask them how they feel about something they are often surprised and answer: good, bad, or nothing. They seemingly cannot express their emotions or analyze them. By exclusively playing, watching videos or talking online, they do not truly learn how to understand emotions, either their own or others. There is no realtime  feedback for the child through online communication and thus empathy does not properly develop.

The things learned when communicating face to face and seeing the influence of words on someone are essential to a child's development.

MKA: What happens when children raised online finally meet in the real world?

The Internet is a communication medium, and in communication with other people there is no place for violence. If violence becomes normalized in the network, then it also begins to be normalized outside of it. The more often someone attacks someone else on the internet, or is attacked or passively watched, the more likely it is that they will start to behave the same way. This is called desensitization. This is especially harmful in children.

At the age of 10-12, there is a natural need to form a peer group. And kids who have previously been glued to their devices can become very violent towards each other online and in real life. They model their behavior based on things seen on the internet.  

MKA: How should I behave if I ever found one of my sons commenting on the photo of a friend: "But would I fuck you?"

The key is always conversation, and -- despite any impulse to shout -- using calm words without emotion. You can ask your son if he is aware of what these words mean? Perhaps he did not know the meaning? Or his friends do it, so he did the same. In any case, it's most important to explain to him that people on the internet do bad things sometimes and we do not have to copy them.

When we talk about these things with parents who have called our helpline after finding out that their child behaved inappropriately, they express shock and drastically negative judgements like: my child is rude, obscene and respects nobody -- and there’s nothing I can do about it.

We ask them, though, to approach the matter calmly and listen to their child’s explanation. We suggest that  instead of an outrageous youngster, they might find a shy, scared child who’s only trying to be liked and accepted by their colleagues. And if they try to hold back their opinion and let the child speak for themselves, their relationship will become stronger and more secure. And whatever happens in the future, before calling a helpline, the child will first turn to their parents.

***

--If you or a child you know needs help, please visit this European Union page for a database of helplines available in your country.

Translated from Polish by Martyna Kardach

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