Wednesday 12 December 2018

Now is the time for adults to show they are on the child's side

The King’s Hospital School in Dublin Photo: Damien Eagers
The King’s Hospital School in Dublin Photo: Damien Eagers

Sheila O'Malley

One of the many disturbing aspects of the assault allegations concerning King's Hospital is the hitherto incoherent response of the involved adults.

It must be stressed that these are as yet all unproven claims. But in the Ireland of 2016, one would imagine that the failure to act quickly regarding an alleged sexual assault of a minor under any circumstances will not wash anymore.

There have been too many revelations of child abuse for parents or teachers to defend their actions by saying they didn't know what to do or how to react.

In all circumstances, parents and teachers need to be ready for such an event and they need to respond appropriately.

As Winston Churchill pointed out: "It is not enough that we do our best, sometimes we have to do what is required." Doing our best isn't enough when there is an allegation that a child may have been sexually attacked - instead adults need to bypass our horror and shock and fly to the side of the vulnerable child.

Where there are any allegations of assault, the deep shame, horror and vulnerability that the child can feel as they reveal the incident is unspeakably intense.

This is the time for the adults to dig deep and show the child that they are on the child's side. The time is now.

At this crucial moment, the child is intensely vulnerable and they need to be reassured that they aren't complicit in some way, that it won't happen again and that sanity will be restored. If in any circumstances the immediate reaction is to close ranks and worry about the fallout that will happen to reputations, then the child may feel guilty that they are causing trouble and, even worse, they may feel that it's their own fault.

The 'flight, fight, freeze or appease' instinct might render many of us silent for a moment at the crucial moment of disclosure and yet we can still take the child's hand, we can still demonstrate our loyalty with our eyes and, as soon as we can speak, then we must immediately reassure the child that we are on their side and we will do our utmost to relieve the child of their pain and suffering.

At the best of times, many adults are so horrified about the snippets of information we hear generally in the media about the disturbing behaviour of teenagers that we prefer to turn away and pretend that it doesn't concern us. Our brains simply cannot process an allegation that something terrible could be done and then recorded on a phone.

Our natural feelings of horror can be overwhelmed by a desire to push it all away. This is the brain's defence mechanism at work - we deny and suppress things that we simply cannot process.

But there have been too many stories in the public domain over the years where teenagers have been seen to behave terribly.

Usually by the time we have become adults most of us have learned to live by a certain code of ethics. However during the middle-teen years, when the approval of peers has a heightened supremacy, many teenagers' actions can be easily influenced by mob rule and they can behave with brutality and cruelty.

We have seen several cases where mob rule often creates an identity all of its own. This identity might be shaped by the strongest personalities of the group. However, sometimes, depending on the context, group identity can be shaped by the interests of the group.

So if a group of teenagers enjoys playing violent video games together, their views of what is socially acceptable can become completely distorted. This is a dangerous but very common scenario that parents need to watch out for.

Experience has shown us that it is not that being involved with a group of kids who enjoy playing violent video games is an inherently 'bad' thing to do, it is that if a group of kids whose identity is centred on violence and cruelty exists within a bullying environment, then a lot of nasty behaviour can unfold.

Denying the hold that mob rule has on our teenagers' lives is denying reality. Parents need to be aware that teenagers' brains aren't fully formed yet. The teenage brain is more impulsive and more attracted to dangerous behaviour than the adult brain; also, teenagers are more influenced by their peers' approval than we are.

Where there are hordes of teenagers gathered together, there will be issues with behaviour. This doesn't mean that we should prevent youths from meeting one another - far from it, this is how they grow and develop their identity.

But parents and teachers need to be vigilant that poor behaviour is nipped in the bud before it turns into degrading and vicious brutality.

Most of all, adults need to be ready to step in and act responsibly and quickly.

Irish Independent

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