The tethered generation
The young adults of today have been criticised as lazy, apathetic and entitled. But does the blame lie only with the 'kidults' themselves? Psychotherapist Stella O'Malley argues that, despite the best of intentions, it is a generation of overindulgent and overprotective parents, who have never challenged their children to grow up, that have instigated the millennial malaise
Not many parents set out to raise a 30-year-old lummox living at home, sprawled on the couch all day, playing on the Xbox, eating pizza and drinking beer, yet many parents are doing just that by becoming excessively involved in their children's lives. Developments in technology now provide parents with a perpetual, stretchable umbilical cord to their growing children.
But these developments also present a whole new set of problems for parents and children to deal with. Teenagers become permanently plugged into the mothership. They use parents, via their mobiles, as a surrogate to thinking for themselves. Parents encourage it, and are used to it, as, today, they are expected to have total control over their children's lives. Children are growing up without having the opportunity – or the need – to learn resourcefulness. And this is why the term "learned helplessness" has become a term commonly associated with teenagers of the Millennial Generation.
Many child psychologists agree that even the ordinary mobile phone can be a poisoned chalice. "On the one hand, this arrangement gives the adolescent new freedoms.
"On the other, the adolescent does not have the experience of having only herself to count on – there's always a parent on speed dial," says Sherry Turkle, a licensed clinical psychologist and Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US. Parents now worry about their children's involvement in technology in a way that our own parents couldn't even have conceived.
"Should I allow my child to have a mobile phone? I don't want to make a freak of my child, but should I allow my child to play violent computer games if all his friends are playing them?
"Should I be friends with my child on Facebook? What happens if my teenager unfriends me? Should I have their password? Should I pry? Should I pry openly? Waah!"
In less than two decades, technology has brought us mobile phones, text messaging, voicemail, laptops, email, the internet, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, satellite TV, digital TV, camcorders, computer games, Game Boys, PlayStations, iPods, iPhones, iTunes, and whatever you're having yourself.
Take, for example, the story of two-year-old Evan, which neatly encapsulates how quickly a human can learn a sense of helplessness against stronger forces.
Baby Evan was diagnosed with diabetes and had to undergo a series of injections to help maintain his blood sugar levels. The first day, Evan roared crying when the nurse administered the needle. The second day, Evan put up a strong resistance, kicking and screaming when he saw the nurse and the needle, but he was held down and in the needle went.
The third day, Evan started crying the moment he saw the nurse, but it was relatively easier to inject him. The fourth day, he whimpered and turned into his mother's breast, wincing as the needle went into his skin. On the fifth day, the nurse arrived with the needle, and two-year-old Evan sadly proffered his little arm with no resistance; he knew that resistance was futile – he had learned helplessness.
The psychologist, Martin Seligman, first developed his theories on learned helplessness at the University of Pennsylvania in 1967. He showed us how feeling ineffective in your life can lead directly to resignation to chronic depression.
If a parent overcontrols a child's life, overriding the child's wishes, and always knowing better than the child, children with certain dispositions learn to surrender all control to the parent, while other children rebel furiously and soon become known as the troublemaker of the family. The coping mechanism the more peaceful and passive child uses is to resign themselves to their fate – learning to put up and shut up.
Learned Helplessness at University
Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on your perspective, developments in technology are enabling parents to keep an eye on their children. But this can quickly turn sinister and controlling, as many Irish parents secretly gain access to their children's social media.
Some even install spy software on their children's mobiles and computers so as to keep tabs on their precious little chickens. This might be considered acceptable when your child is a vulnerable 13-year-old, but it is less palatable when the offspring is a perfectly able 20-year-old. As more and more great big babies are going to university, the law is beginning to struggle with the question of who should bear the legal responsibility for students' conduct.
Parents are present on campus today in a whole new way, and they are very clear that their children are still children, rather than adults. A significant number of parents now attend college open days.
Indeed, many third-level colleges have now begun to cater for this by having a "parents' section" on open days. Parents these days usually fork out a considerable sum towards their children's education, even in these days of "free education", and so they become their children's advocates to ensure that the college meets its obligations.
College registration fees have increased tenfold in 15 years, and a 2013 survey by the Irish League of Credit Unions showed that 43 per cent of parents have saved for almost a decade to fund student living costs. It is little wonder that parents then seek a worthy return on their investment.
The over-involved parent often chooses an ambitious course for their child, and then they look to the authorities if this doesn't work out. Previously, administrators believed that students should assume responsibility for their own academic and social progress.
However, these days, college staff often collide dangerously with concerned parents who are more than ready to fight the good fight on behalf of Johnny (who is often to be found enjoying himself in the college bar, blithely confident that his parents will sort out any difficulties).
And when Johnny fails his first-year exams, neither the parent nor Johnny is willing to take ownership of the situation, and the crucial, golden "teachable moment" is lost on the young man. The parents are outraged because they have spent such a large amount of money on this education, and Johnny is horrified because he has become accustomed to his parents sorting everything out. Everything becomes the fault of either the college or the system, and parents are often ready to turn a minor issue into a confrontation, and even use the legal system if it means that it might let little Johnny off the hook.
Third-level education has become a service that parents are buying for their children. Although colleges have a well-established procedure for cheating and plagiarism, the modern parent is ruthlessly determined to find a way for their child to shirk responsibility. Parents regularly buy essays from more qualified graduates online – technology makes it easy for Johnny to email the graduate his essay requirements, and the graduate then rewrites the essay to an acceptable standard, and Johnny sends it in in his own name.
But where should we draw the line? If the parents have invested untold hours and amounts of money into their child's future, when can they back off and allow their child to fail or succeed? After third level? After the kidult's first job? After she buys her first house? Has his first child?
Jobs for the Boys?
Donna Miller, European HR director for Enterprise Rent-A-Car, has commented that parents are now making their presence felt at career fairs. "They come right up to us and say, 'What would my son be doing if he worked for you?', while the son is standing right there. It's like they're asking about a nursery place." Miller has even seen parents turning up at job interviews: "Again, we were amazed, although we try to be polite and say, 'Gosh, it's lovely you're here, but can you wait in reception?' Most recently, we've seen parents responding to the job offer, asking, 'What will they be doing? Can you explain the benefits? My son doesn't understand what a stakeholder is.' We've even had parents turning up for the induction, and they've been really surprised when we've said they can't spend the first week of their child's job with them. But this isn't a first day at school."
Miller believes that progressive companies need to cater for parents' interest in their offspring's careers. "It has become so common that we've taken the attitude, 'If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.' It's the way it is for this generation so, if you can't include their parents, you risk missing out on talent," she said. Have parents unwittingly made total idiots of their children, making them helplessly and hopelessly dependent? Perhaps the infantilisation of society has become complete? Or might it be time for parents to take a step back?
Therapists agree that it is relatively easy to spot the overcontrolled adult-child when they come for therapy. They are indecisive and easily persuaded as they haven't learnt to think for themselves. They are always asking the therapist for their opinion, and they will usually have one or two mentors (usually their parents) who they view as having much better judgement than they do. Children of overinvolved parents tend not to grow out of the childish belief that their parents are gods.
Although they are often silently seething with resentment over the control their parent has over them, nonetheless, the young client often seeks for the therapist to replace their controlling parent as the new god in their life. When, as a therapist, I am forced to reject the client's offer to be their new god, the looks of surprise and outrage would be funny were it not such a dysfunctional thought process.
Intensive parents are stressed, anxious and exhausted, and their children are lost. Research shows that this generation of children is more confident, assertive and entitled than previous generations, and yet they are more miserable, anxious and depressed than previous generations.
Sometimes called the L'Oreal Generation ("because I'm worth it"), they have been taught to believe that the world revolves around them, yet they have never been given the space to find out who they are. They feel frustrated, disaffected and bewildered by too much choice.
So what is the future for this generation of overcontrolled children? Will we see magnificent leaps in science and creativity as a result of all this concerted cultivation? Will the children of the future lead the way into a brave new world? Or will these children boomerang back home to Mammy with an armful of impressive qualifications and plump for the superficially easy life?
If you analyse current research on the consequences of overinvolved parenting upon young adults today, the future looks decidedly grim. The global recession has left an increasing number of college graduates with pitiful job prospects, while a millennial trend of overparenting has left many young adults heavily reliant on their parents.
The combination of these forces is sending thousands of boomerang children back to the nest. Boomerang children often feel intimidated or belittled by their successful parents in many subtle ways.
Studies show that this is the first generation that don't believe that it is "at all likely" that they will attain a better standard of living than their parents.
These pampered kidults would rather feel safe and a failure at home than face the many challenges of adulthood.
Just like the appendix, the male nipple and our tail bone, perhaps resourcefulness has become an unused and unneeded appendage for Generation Y?
Today, both parents and children believe that these young adults are incapable of taking care of themselves, because Mammy and Daddy have always made their decisions for them. But that's not fair on us. And it's even less fair on our children.
Sunday Indo Life Magazine