By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee
During the morning walk with some friends at Trou-O-Cerfs at the beginning of the week, the talk turned to the recent reports of suicide amongst youngsters and other topics related to behaviour in that age group. One of the friends is active in an NGO dealing with victims of violence since he retired over ten years ago, and he had interesting insights to share.
He had been a primary school teacher and was head teacher at the time of his retirement, so he had a rich experience of handling children and we always learn something useful from him.
It is only too obvious that there has been a dramatic change in the environment in which children are growing up now, compared to ‘our’ times several decades ago, and that relations amongst themselves and between them and their parents and other adults are influenced by a complex of factors with local and global origins. Access to means of communication through the conventional media, new technological devices such as mobiles and other iphones with their apps (all invented in good faith by the departed genius iJobs), and social networks made possible by the advent of the Internet gives them unlimited exposure to all sorts of information and sites. Because of their immaturity, however, they are not in a position to sift the wheat from the chaff.
We shared the view that parents, therefore, have a crucial role to play, and that if children were strongly supported by the family from their tender age they would be at less risk of unwanted behaviours and less likely to deviate from the norms. But this is easier said than done, and we had to concede that there were many factors beyond our control that were impacting our children.
The broader issue was one of communication between children and parents, and another ex-teacher friend gave us examples of parents being at a loss to give proper if not correct answers to their young children. He narrated how some time ago he had been to a shop and met an ex-pupil. After serving him she suggested that they have a little talk, and he gladly agreed. She told about him an occasion when her three-year old daughter had asked her some pointed questions about sex! She was flabbergasted and gave an incoherent answer, to which the little one replied that she was lying! And she naturally sought advice from her former teacher about how to handle such situations.
This reminded me of a story that I read about in a copy of Reader’s Digest many years ago. It was about a lady who was telling her underage daughter how once, before the latter was born, she had gone on a summer holiday with the young thing’s daddy. ‘And where was I at that time?’ asked the little one. That foxed mum who had to reflect a little while before answering, ‘Oh, you were then just a little thought!’
I doubt if that would be an adequate answer today! Or even the famous story about the stork that brings little babies and drops them into mother’s lap for that matter. Parents have to be better prepared to handle these delicate queries, especially about sex and reproduction which are no longer taboo subjects. As with adolescents therefore, it would seem that parents also need support, and since these are issues that cut across all barriers, it goes without saying that a single group or community will not have all the answers. This is perhaps the comparative advantage we may have in multicultural and multiethnic Mauritius, where we may draw upon the richness and experiences of all communities in devising ways and means of handling what are evidently problems common to all of them. If we are not proactive we may have to put up our hands for longer than we would wish and shout, ‘Parent! Help! Adolescent (s) sighted on the horizon!’
However, help is forthcoming, once again from the frontiers of science. Recognising that with a world population of 1.8 billion adolescents, issues relating to and confronting them and ‘us’ are now a matter of global concern, the 45th session of the United Nations (UN) Commission on Population and Development, held in New York from April 23 to 26, has chosen Adolescents and Youth as its central theme. Concurrently, as it did with the problem of chronic disease last year, the British journal The Lancet has published a series of articles on topics related to adolescents that are not only of great scientific and medical interest but whose contents can guide policy makers and parents in their endeavour to grapple with the eruptive adolescence, if I may use that expression. As the journal notes in previews of the articles,
‘Unprecedented momentum is gathering to put adolescents into the centre of global health policies. This opportunity has the potential not only to benefit young people directly but also to have wide-ranging effects on the health of adults and national economic development… Economic and social change have brought great opportunities and threats to adolescent health for rich and poor nations alike. The health transition, together with changes in adolescent social roles, has shifted the burden from childhood infectious diseases towards adolescent injuries and health-jeopardising behaviours in all but the poorest countries. Fortunately, research has clarified many determinants of these behaviours, and wide-ranging prevention approaches to minimise harm and promote health have been identified.
‘Several factors have contributed to the social construct of adolescence as a distinct period of life, including the rise in education (and with it age segregation), social media, and urbanisation. But adolescence also has a biological basis. Many of the behaviours we associate with the teenage years (e.g. risk taking) are evident in other species, and we know that brain maturation in human beings is not complete until about age 25 years. As young people enter adolescence they bring with them resources and vulnerabilities, both biological (genetics, epigenetics, natural endowments) and environmental (national and local policies, as well as community, school, workplace, peers, neighbourhood, and family influences).
‘Problem behaviours that increase the short-term or long-term likelihood of morbidity and mortality, including alcohol, tobacco, and other drug misuse, mental health problems, unsafe sex, risky and unsafe driving, and violence are largely preventable.’
It is no secret that youth are targeted by the mass marketing of unhealthy products and lifestyles – tobacco, alcohol, junk food. As a result, as one columnist underlined, commenting on the Lancet papers, during this period of ‘maximum risk and maximum vulnerability’, with their ‘still-growing bodies and undeveloped minds they hurl themselves into experimentation with drink, drugs and sex’, with the consequences that are only too visible and especially when they have faced abuse and neglect in dysfunctional families.
In Mauritius under the aegis of WHO, two surveys have been conducted among school students aged 13-15 years, one of which focused on tobacco, and both confirm the alarming trends in risky behaviours that are seen worldwide. In October 2011, National Geographic Magazine carried a lead article titled ‘The New Science of the Teenage Brain’. From it I learnt that there was nothing new under the sun, for ‘Aristotle concluded more than 2,300 years ago that “the young are heated by Nature as drunken men by wine.” ‘Whereas ‘Freud saw adolescence as an expression of torturous psychosexual conflict’ (admittedly a very restrictive view), G Stanley Hall ‘formalized adolescent studies with his 1904 Adolescence: Its Psychology and Its Relations to Physiology, Anthropology, Sociology, Sex, Crime, Religion and Education.’
The Lancet articles bring up to date data about adolescence, and it is noteworthy that both the National Geographic and the Lancet studies underline the importance of engagement with the family. Thus, ‘when parents engage and guide their teens with a light but steady hand, staying connected but allowing independence, their kids generally do much better in life,’ and the commentary on The Lancet articles, ‘Adolescents who feel connected to their family smoke fewer cigarettes, drink less alcohol, use less marijuana, start sex later and are less likely to be involved in violence. Parents who know about and are involved in their children’s lives are less likely to have problem adolescents.’
Those who wish to know further may consult the references cited. Plenty of food for thought and action for both parents and adolescents, in a continuous process of mutually rewarding ‘engagement’ that they owe to each other. Takes two hands to make a clap, a loud and happy one in this case.