This is an insight into teenage anxiety and depression. I am no expert but do hope this article will throw some light on the illness that plagues many. This is a complex issue and what I have outlined is just a framework that I hope will get people to start difficult conversations and help children and families they know without judgement. I may be wrong and if I am please feel free to correct me and carry on the discussion. We need to take away the stigma that is associated with mental illness as it affects far more children and families than we think and it does not have to be this way.
The Young Ones.
Ah!!! The glorious days of teenage…. Of fun, frolic, first loves and fast friends. Of being footloose and carefree. However old you may be while reading this, does not the sound of the word bring back the image of a young John Travolta swinging to foot tapping music, a beautiful sixteen-year-old Liselle going on seventeen or the boyishly dashing Aamir Khan dreamily singing ‘Pehlaa Nasha’ to the glamorous Pooja Bedi? An age that could completely be described by the stars in Archie’s eyes and ‘BOING’. An age in our timelines when hours idling around with friends filled our lives. When going to college to get an education was expected of us yet it did not consume us. When we laughed wholeheartedly, not a care in the world, we ate to our heart’s content, not a worry in our hearts. When walks to our school were as important as the learning we did in school and heartfelt conversations with buddies were as important as homework. An idyllic life….
Are you all warm and fuzzy on the inside, friends? Maybe some of you are even humming ‘Summer Holiday’ or ‘Yellow Submarine’. Now that you are all cozied up, let me proceed to tell you the real reason behind penning my thoughts.
Sadly, like the dinosaurs who once roamed the earth, teenage as we knew it is now extinct. Today our children go through a phase of life that could better be described as teenache. A recent article in the Times quotes that there at least 3 million adolescents in the ages of 12 to 17 who have had at least one major depressive order in the past year and 6.3 million teens aged 13 to 18 who have had an anxiety disorder. These numbers maybe representative of the US population but it is a well-known fact that children across the globe are angst ridden. Not knowing how to deal with this agony within, more and more kids now resort to drugs, alcohol, cutting themselves and suicide. Heartbreaking, isn’t it? At an age where our kids need to experience the feeling of ecstasy that stems from living in the moment without any worries, they are infusing themselves with drugs to mimic the joy. What troubles them so? What are they anxious about? What is the root of this sadness? Here is my take on it….
One of the factors is the fact that we place too much emphasis on the analysis and production of geniuses. Children have an innate curiosity and an ability to learn spontaneously from the environment. Give them a blank sheet of paper and a few colored pencils and a child will produce a work of art that’s straight from the heart. A simple stimulus will produce a natural response. Yet these days we give them complex doodling mechanisms that promises us parents that our children will be young Picassos by the age of three. We give them toys that proclaim that if our children just push the right buttons on them, their brains will develop like Einstein or Mozart or Rembrandt or better still all three. We overstimulate and have altered the way they learn. The pressure starts here, my friends. Even as babies we send subtle signals to our children that they need to perform.
By the time, they are older and are enrolled in kumon, ballet, karate, art, sports and music, the signals are very clear. Though these classes exist to enhance their lives, in reality they are a fertile ground for breeding competitive parents. It’s not enough that the kids are learning a skill, they need to amount to something. A child no longer swims just because he likes to or plays the violin because he wants to. He does it to make it into varsity teams or national level orchestras.
This is a brilliant generation of kids, my friends. Their ability to grasp and multitask is remarkable. Doesn’t it awe you when you see a child with tiny fingers deftly navigating a smartphone, a four-year-old effortlessly playing Bach on the piano or a thirteen-year-old teeing off with professionals on the golf course? There is immense talent yet this is a generation caught at the crossroads of cutting edge technology and our traditional ways. They need to excel in traditional academics and the arts while polishing soft skills needed to keep up with social media. They must be confident and know how to present themselves in the real world while being tech savvy and photogenic in the digital. The pressure on them is enormous. Have you noticed how children these days resemble beasts of burden as they carry their gigantic backpacks to school? It’s not the just the size of the books but the enormous content of the various subjects that weigh them down too. From literature to calculus, information is fed to them not only from the textbooks but various online platforms as well. Could Information explosion be weighing them down?
To top it all, children of first generation immigrants are said to be ‘good’ kids only if they imbibe the culture of the place their parents migrated from. Nothing wrong with staying connected to their roots, but the connection should be natural, not imposed. Countless regional societies have sprouted with the intention of creating a pseudo-environment of the culture parents grew up in. It is truly wonderful to expose the richness and diversity of the fine arts and literature of our ancient cultures, but to think that just by learning the music or a dance form or attending weekend get togethers will make them think like the way we do or ‘desi’fy them is wrong. It will not work because these kids are growing up in an age where the entire world is their playground. The boundaries that define their identities are hazy. We grew up in the pre-internet era, isolated from the rest of the world. Our identities were closely tied to the place we grew up in, the way of life in that region, the kind of food made there and the language spoken. When I was growing up, burgers were food that only symbolized Jughead and America. Now, McDonald’s is a household name in India. You could now live in India and lay tacos on the dinner table or live the US and have paneer tikka for dinner. A high school child of Turkish immigrants watching ‘Anime’ or listening to K-pop does not see himself as any different from his neighbor, a child of Japanese immigrants watching and listening to the same thing and better still, a young girl in the US watching Priyanka Chopra on ‘Quantico’ sees the same role model as does a teen in Asia. Picture a geek and the cast of ‘The Big Bang Theory’ comes foremost to the mind of every kid in any part of the world. There are no borders.
That is also the reason why these kids feel the impact of events happening on the other side of the world. The Iran-Iraq war raged on for much of my childhood but it did not affect me greatly. What your eyes cannot see, your mind does not know. Yet today, the mob molestation in a major city in India evokes fear and rage in the mind of every young woman halfway across the globe. The picture of a little boy battered and bruised in the war in Aleppo stirred sadness in many tender hearts around the world. Every day the world gives our kids a reason to be sad.
Our kids have open minds and open hearts and an ability to accept people as they are. Much of their anguish comes from the duality in today’s world. What they feel in their hearts- a connection to people who are physically distant and what they see- adults fighting over color, race, religion confuses them. The divisive and bitter nature of our politics, the hatred in the words and deeds of adults in the name of God angers them. As if this is not enough, in all the chaos we repeatedly make the point that they need to stand out and carve a niche for themselves. As Time magazine rightly says, ‘If you wanted to create an environment to churn out really angsty people, we’ve done it.’
Well, how do we undo what we’ve done? Technology is here to stay but our mindsets need to change.
- We need to start thinking like our children with open hearts and open minds. Accept people as they are. Do not judge people on their origins, color, race or orientation. Our children don’t.
- Love our children for who they are. Let them know that having a perfect 4.0 GPA does not define them, the sparkle in their eyes and the lilt in their laughter does. Let them do things that they love not to add to their resume but because they enjoy it. The Beatles were right when they sang ‘All you need is love.’
- Take a vow together to take life less seriously. Let them be goofy and take a few minutes to laugh with them each day. Every day the world gives our kids a reason to be sad. Hold them tight and let them know there are plenty of reasons to be happy too. A mind capable of producing sadness is equally capable of producing happiness.Exercise, meditation(if they are open to it), spending time together or mastering the fine art of doing nothing are great tools to be happy. A teen who feels loved will not resort to harming themselves in any way.
- Pursue excellence, not perfection. Each day that you grow as a person and work on stuff you are passionate about, you are excelling. Perfection does not exist.
- Do not worry about the richness of our culture getting lost. The Internet has opened its doors as never before. Recently, I saw a video of Dutch children reciting verses from the Bhagvad Gita. It does not get any better than this. Spread the wonder to whoever is willing to learn. Teach your children your language, your art as you would to any other child, to enrich their life and not because you want them to grow up like you did.
Life is beautiful, my friends. Neither you nor your children need to be in pursuit of achievements or fill up your calendars with a must do list to add value to your life. As the wise men say ‘You are enough.’
I leave you with the words of a beautiful song I grew up listening to- ‘The Young ones’ by Cliff Richard.
“The young ones
Darling we’re the young ones
And young ones shouldn’t be afraid.
To live, love
While the flame is strong
For we may not be the young ones very long.
Why wait until tomorrow.
Tomorrow sometimes never comes
So love me,
There’s a song to be sung
And the best time is to sing it while we’re young.”