Sunday 17 December 2017

Do angry teens need counsellors, or a just a sharp dose of reality?

Are we making depression the default position for young adults?
Are we making depression the default position for young adults?

Emer O'Kelly

A number of years ago, I was having a drink with a good friend, home briefly from his apparently enviable job in IT in, of all places, Barbados. "God," I said, half joking, "I really miss you: what the hell enticed you away from old Erin?"

What came next was startling, and ultimately, devastating. "Do you really want to know?" he asked.

It was simple: he had to go, he said, because if he stayed, he couldn't call his soul his own. The problem was his mother. She hounded his every move, called him twice a day, asked him what he had for breakfast; wanted to know if he'd met anyone (he was gay, she knew that, it was not a problem.) She'd suffocated him all his adult life because she was obsessed with what pop psychology told her was the modern torment: young men, their despair, and their propensity for suicide.

In her book, if a young man faced a difficulty, suicide was entirely possible. And she thought that by monitoring her son and pre-empting problems, she could keep him safe. (Her daughter was expected to get on with things.)

She was not rich, but had given him everything, and expected nothing in return. Failed exams? Well, he wasn't academic, no problem, she'd pull strings to get him a job. Salary not enough to fund a jolly bachelor lifestyle? She supplemented it. Laundry? He brought it home.

He was a man in his twenties. My friend allowed it to happen: in some ways it was useful. Somewhere in his soul, he knew it was unhealthy. But the patterns of suffocating mother-love had been too well-established. His mother had made him incapable of telling her that he was an adult and his own man, and well able to make his own mistakes. The simplest thing was to leave Ireland. Frankly, I had suspected it, he only confirmed it. But why, I wanted to know, hadn't he talked to someone: me, for instance?

She'd have found out, he said simply - the scene, if he talked to "an outsider", would not have been worth it. Now despite his cool, chic job, he couldn't cope with life; he had no experience of having to take responsibility for his actions and decisions. Relationships, whether in friendship or love, proved impossible: he couldn't connect. Real life and coping skills had always been outside his boundaries, "protected", as he was, by the shield of mother love. He was desperately lonely. Always a heavy drinker, he took seriously to the bottle; the glamorous career started to go down the tubes.

I tell the story for what it's worth. Also, for what it's worth, he killed himself. I still miss him. Shortly before his mother died, she, who had always been belligerently defensive concerning her mothering skills, said to me : "I destroyed him." It was a hell of a burden to carry to the grave.

We live in an era of obsessive parenting. The help columns of newspapers are full of queries from parents who watch their children day and night for signs of minor alterations in their behaviour. If they throw a tantrum, are they exhibiting signs of ADHD? If they scream their heads off at the age of two when they are put out of their parents' bed, are they going to be scarred for life if they are not permitted to stay there until puberty? If they indulge in a massive three-day sulk at not getting their own way at the age of 14, do they need counselling or an anger-management course?

It seems as though every piece of bad behaviour is put down to an "obia" or an "ism" when it is merely part of the natural process of growing up. When a teenager's hormones are in a heap, they behave irrationally. They're in the "journeyman" phase of life: learning the trade of living, but not yet expert in it. They need overseeing when they're using the more dangerous tools of the trade of living, but they have to be allowed to control the less lethal ones for themselves, and learn from their mistakes when they slice into their thumbs.

Despite behaviour which sometimes makes them resemble the anti-Christ, young men and women who are not yet fully adult, but are no longer children (despite their parents' belief), actually want to belong. That's what leads them to dress in a uniform which they fondly believe is "individual". That's what drives their impassioned search for an acceptable cool that fits seamlessly into their own circle, a clone for their current hero or heroine.

And when, having been gregarious little chickens who are nice to brothers and sisters, and enjoying being in the kitchen making crispy cakes, they turn into surly, anti-social, shouting, weeping monsters who refuse to leave their rooms and refuse to eat anything that resembles healthy food, there is undoubtedly a chance that they may be heading towards a breakdown of some kind.

But what is far more likely is that they are testing boundaries. Except they don't find any. All they get is "understanding" and "sympathy" from parents whose job it should be to make them realise that life is tough and imperfect. The parental role should help emerging adults to take responsibility for living in an imperfect - even what seems like an unjust - world, rather than retreating into a dream-world that identifies perfectly normal tension and stress as mental illness.

The child's angry cry of, "it's not fair" is just that: a child's cry. And when teenagers use it while at the same time claiming angrily that they're not children, sending them to counsellors for their (often understandable) rage, is normalising irrational behaviour.

And that's not going to create a sense of security; it will only facilitate infantilism and take youngsters further down the road of isolation when they should be embracing the adult world with all its challenges.

It's not suicide that's a problem epidemic: the problem is talking endlessly about it, allied to a culture of talking of depression as almost the psychological default position. Teenage suicide, shatteringly tragic though it is, is very frequently (unpleasant though it may be to have to face that reality) the ultimate tantrum.

Teenagers need to hear far more about its brutally ugly and self-indulgent side. They need less protection, and more prodding towards a sense of adult responsibility for their own emotions. It used to be called a kick in the pants.

Sunday Independent

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