They are tired. They have no energy for any passion. They escape from their emotions into TV series. How can we talk with children and teenagers about their problems? Psychologist and psychotherapist Agnieszka Carrasco-Żylicz talks to Aleksandra Pezda about the mental health of the young today.
This interview deals with suicidal ideation and suicide among children.
Aleksandra Pezda: In Poland, more than 600,000 children need psychiatric or psychological treatment. What problems do they most commonly present to you?
Agnieszka Carrasco-Żylicz: The fear of rejection is the biggest one. They feel insignificant, invisible. They say: “In a group I am no-one”, “I don’t count”. Adolescence is the period in one’s life when the fundamental questions include What do others think of me?, and whether one is liked overrides other goals in life. From the perspective of a teenager, group disparagement is the worst that can happen. In today’s world, each bit of back-biting or rejection by one’s peers can be escalated on social media and go around the world within minutes. A banal conflict or unimportant argument doesn’t run its course before the next lesson, but turns into real hate that ruins the psyche.
Teenagers fall into the trap of the internet?
Not completely. They fall into more or less the same traps as they did before, only these are more refined and dangerous. Before the days of the internet, we were generally dealing with bullying and extortion, with physical violence. The reach of this type of violence was limited both in time and space. It was relatively easy to spot and support the victim. Fortunately, these days, there is less physical violence, but unfortunately the aggression has moved onto the net. Disputes don’t end immediately, and sometimes become a form of deliberate torture. Psychological violence dominates; not everyone could punch their peer with a fist, but the majority are able to take out their feelings in words. The internet has made this exponential. It allows for huge impact, with its unlimited range, anonymity and physical distance. It is easier to torment someone from behind a screen than in a face-to-face conversation.
Are you saying that peer psychological abuse has become commonplace?
It’s an everyday occurrence these days. I’ll tell you about a girl from the eighth grade. She changed school after moving to a larger city, due to her parents’ professional promotion. Unfortunately, the new class did not take well to her. At school, verbal scuffles, gossip and harassment were commonplace. Group comments started circulating on Messenger. She read about herself that she had hairy legs, dressed in clothes from second-hand shops, and that they wouldn’t ever want to see her ‘nude photos’... For the first term, she tried to cope on her own. She ignored the problem. She looked for friends in another class. But that only wound up the haters. A sensitive and cheerful girl fell into apathy. She stopped leaving the house and learning problems began. Her parents realized when they heard from her that there was no point in getting out of bed.
Do teenagers look for help?
A visit to a psychologist or psychiatrist is no longer embarrassing for teenagers. When possible, they don’t hesitate to take advantage of such help. But they don’t have a developed strategy for how to cope in difficult situations. We don’t teach them how to counter aggression and hate. We also don’t teach them about who they can approach and when they should ask for help. The lack of spaces for youth therapy in the public health service is widely talked about. If a family can afford a private therapist, the young person has more chance. But children most often wait and delude themselves that it will pass. Their situation usually becomes a vicious circle, emotions take over, depression develops, self-harming begins and, in the end, suicide attempts.
I know a 16-year-old girl who fell for a popular guy. She slept with him for the first time, and from her side it was really out of love. They went out together for several months until she found out that she wasn’t the only one – he was seeing several girls at once. She broke up with him, but couldn’t stop loving him. She really suffered. She started to think badly about herself; that she was unattractive. She was paralysed by the thought that she must be worthless since she wasn’t good enough for this boy. With her parents, who had never accepted the relationship, she also felt embarrassed that she had indeed chosen badly. Her family was conservative, which ruled out the idea of sex before marriage. The girl started to withdraw, became ever lonelier, stopped trusting anyone and began to plan how to end her life. Here I should repeat the popular line: “This was a normal family and a well brought up child; a good student.”
How did she manage to get to therapy in the end?
Her father couldn’t find his razors. When he found one of them with blood on it in the bathroom, the girl could no longer pretend that it wasn’t her. She had been cutting her thighs, which had allowed her to hide it from those close to her for a long time. This was her way of relieving the suffering. Self-harm enters young peoples’ heads when they can’t express their emotions. In this girl’s house, it was not permitted to show anger, nor to express a different opinion. There are such families, internally stiff, where they are convinced that everything in life will be how they want it and how they arrange it. In cases like this, I say it is better to throw a plate and have a major argument than stew on one’s frustrations.
“I’m unattractive.” Sex educators note that such self-judgement is an everyday problem among teenagers.
Difficulties with accepting a changing body is a typical feature of adolescence. But it can be a source of enormous suffering. This happens increasingly often today and can lead to conditions like anorexia and bulimia. The typical problems of a maturing teenager, such as acne, sweating, growing breasts or a breaking voice, clash with the image of celebrities plastered all over the media. No real person can ever compete with Photoshop. Psychologically fragile teenagers are unable to cope with such comparisons. Sensible sex education is also missing – parents still don’t feel comfortable with the subject, so children learn about sexuality from the internet, including from widely-available pornography. That is why I am not surprised that, during therapy sessions, I often hear about losing weight and dreams of plastic surgery.
How do you work with teenagers after a suicide attempt?
I try to recognize and respect their suffering. Because they are suffering horrendously. What happens next depends upon how much they open up and whether we will be able to get to the root of the problem. Adults tend to downplay the dilemmas facing teenagers. They say things like: “What problems can you have at your age?” or “Pull yourself together!” And a young person really does experience everything more intensely. It is easy to miss the moment where they are unable to cope with their emotions and lose the ability to control their own life. Often suicide attempts are made by so-called ‘good’ children – got together on the outside, seemingly coping well with life and with great school grades. But on the inside? A cry of despair. Because they don’t have the conditions in which to express their pain. Because at home no-one talks about their feelings, weaknesses or failure. And yet resignation in a teenager is often also a form of attention-seeking; an attempt to find out ‘if I am still important to my parents’. Particularly when those same parents are consumed with their own issues: marital arguments, professional or financial problems.
What do the teenagers who have tried to take their lives say?
They are tired. They say: “I don’t have any strength. I’d like most of all to stay in bed and never leave my room again.” They escape into gaming and TV series in order not to think and to feel less. They don’t have any strength for life and forget about their passions. Interestingly, they are often quite well-informed psychologically. An adult will say, for example, “when I go out of the house, I feel something crushing me”, while a teenager will use the specialist vocabulary, “I’m having a panic attack”. This is a generation who are experts in their psychological condition and yet often, simultaneously, blocked in their relationships. Inasmuch as they are still able to show their anger, it is difficult for them to express sadness, regret, frustration or loneliness.
Are they affected by new problems, such as climate fear?
Fear of climate change is already a thing. This gets intertwined with the natural existential questions about the meaning of life and the inevitability of death. They are facing smog, water shortages, hunger – and with their whole lives ahead of them. In spite of everything, I am reassured when they ask these questions, because this means they are facing up to the problem, looking for a solution and not giving in. However, it does happen that climate fear paralyses them. I was shocked when I heard a young girl say that she didn’t want to have children in order to avoid sentencing them to existing in “a world that is heading for destruction.” Catastrophism is growing among the younger generation, but I should point out that it is the young who are telling their parents to save water, that it is better not to eat meat, that it is worth getting on a bicycle and not flying. Some of these people will be the leaders of changes in this field.
Increasing numbers of children are experiencing anxiety and depression, and they are six times more likely to attempt suicide than a decade ago. Why?
Among other reasons, this happens because young people are growing up earlier, but becoming independent later. We talk about the open scissors effect – there is a discrepancy between what they need and the requirements and expectations of the environment around teenagers or, more broadly, young people. This has to bring serious consequences. The pressure increases, the feeling of safety and security weakens, giving rise to problems with identity. Today’s generation of young people live in a completely different world to that of their parents and grandparents.
That’s nothing new – each new generation clashes with the older one.
It is to some extent a natural phenomenon, but the speed of change has accelerated enormously. The young of course have to rebel, in order on the one hand to adapt to the world, and on the other to try and change it to meet their needs. However, in order to introduce a new order, they should be entering adulthood with a positive attitude and in a safe manner. Today this is missing. We see that young people simply cannot cope with the changes and expectations that society has of them. The question today is: what is the adaptive power of the young generation and will it be strong enough to adapt to such rapid changes?
Are we damaging our young people with school rankings?
The pressure of school isn’t for everyone. Only a narrow group of kids – very bright and exceptionally psychologically resilient – can compete without huge emotional losses. Meanwhile, our culture is set up to demand fierce rivalry from each teenager and constant testing in examinations and tests. This is devastating for entire generations. I ask the parents of teenagers where they see their child in 20 years’ time? What do they want for them: money and a career, or the strength to live?
A good profession really does makes life easier.
I know doctors and lawyers who entered the profession at their parents’ request and don’t feel fulfilled at all. Parents today often tend to plan out their children’s lives to extremes. They influence their decisions, pressure them and take decisions for them. This overwhelms the young and means that they don’t feel they have any control over their lives. To my mind, genuine success in life is having inner peace and self-awareness. It frightens me how many teachers don’t want to know who their students are, nor what they are feeling, but only check their marks. Just like some toxic corporation. It shouldn’t surprise us that teenagers often don’t want to live. I took a 15-year-old girl through therapy, who had tried her very hardest to please her parents. She wanted them to be proud of her. That’s why she did everything to get into a prestigious senior school that was very specialized in sciences. It quickly became apparent that she could not keep up with her classmates. From a small primary school where she had many friends, she had moved to a factory for competition winners, where she met with stiff competition. There was no room for friendships – everyone was pushing themselves to get a good grade average. The girl fell to bits completely. It turned out she wasn’t as psychologically robust as she thought. It began with problems sleeping, and then uncontrolled outbursts of crying. Although she was studying harder and harder, her results got worse and worse. She didn’t pass the term and ended up with depression and on medication.
How can you help a child after such an experience?
The girl tried to pick up an old passion: singing. Of course, she changed school. But it was very difficult for her. Coming out of her depression took many months. At first, she thought badly about herself; that she was stupid and not worth much. She was disappointed with herself and on top of that was convinced she had let down her parents. The situation at home was also so loaded with conflict between her parents, that school was only part of the problem. However, her parents did support her. They sought help and enabled their daughter to undergo therapy for a long time. Not all parents can afford such support and there are many lost children.
Are young people psychologically weaker and less resilient than the children of earlier generations?
Above all, they are overstimulated. The pace of life is accelerating. Advanced technologies open up ever more possibilities – in entertainment, relationships, contacts and control – and they become all-consuming. Add to this ubiquitous consumerism and hedonism. Material things often appear at the very top of our list of needs today, and this is particularly so for young people. You need quite some resilience and maturity to find your way in a world like this; to maintain your psychological and emotional balance. Even adults cope badly with it. It is hard to expect this from children.
Has the pandemic-induced isolation deepened the anxiety of teenagers?
In many cases, unfortunately, yes. In homes where there is abuse or toxic, difficult relationships, the isolation has intensified these behaviours. Before, a child or teenager from such a family could get away, even if only to school, where they could get support from classmates or teachers. During the pandemic, this external control has been blocked. Above all, we are dealing with a serious, global threat. Our loved ones get ill, many people die, and we have had to introduce drastic limitations to our lives. Some families are facing bankruptcy. Some parents have lost their jobs. But children and teenagers are not passive bystanders. The weight of the pandemic is hitting them too – they take on the fears of the adults.
How are they reacting?
They are frequently reporting problems with sleep and concentration. They talk about a feeling of being divorced from reality. Everything has been suspended: their contact with their peers, first loves. They try to meet up online, but this seems unreal to them. They are missing out on exercise when physical activity helps deal with negative emotions. They are missing changing environments. Imprisoned at home, the majority don’t have the conditions to have separate spaces for relaxing and working; suddenly school is everywhere. There is a lack of variety – lessons, space, activity – and for a young brain these are the foundations of development.
Do they see any positives?
Some of them appreciate having more time and less stress over school things. They don’t have to get up at a specific time and go to school. They suddenly have plenty of time for themselves. They can eat when they want and don’t have to wait for a break. They also appreciate the positive side of home life: sometimes they cook something or make a dessert. For sensitive children, the lack of confrontational situations is important. They don’t have to stand up in front of the whole class to answer questions, or compete within a group, or dress correctly. They don’t have to pretend or prove anything. Children like this do better under distance learning. Some teenagers, in spite of everything, also appreciate the presence of their parents at home, which they were missing due to the weight of their professional work. A young person, in truth, wants to separate themselves, wants to have their own world, but simultaneously needs warmth and attention, and during the pandemic isolation their parents are more present and more available…
…and the parents can keep an eye on their children as well.
I wouldn’t say that. The fact that parents are with a teenager non-stop under one roof doesn’t at all mean that they have them under control. Generally, in the internet era, the influence of parents over their children has lessened. Teenagers live on the net and parents can’t see what they are doing. It is a ‘double life’ – you can see something on the outside, but more important things are happening in the background. I remember a teenage girl, a well-cared for, only child, who suddenly started to cause problems. She raised her voice, criticized her parents to the borders of hatred, and shut herself in her room. Her parents lost contact with her. Only then did they uncover her second life. The girl had got into a closed group on Facebook, where attractive young women were supposed to be giving out helpful advice. In reality, they had been seduced by old men, and were sending them nude photos and videos. The parents interrupted this practice just at the moment it had begun to take on the form of virtual pimping. Adolescence is a period of great changes. Until recently, we thought that it was only a question of hormonal changes, but today we talk rather about a specific phase in brain development. This emotional tsunami makes teenagers need to experience strong sensations – they seek out euphoria. They want to break their own boundaries, and in different ways. They test their strength outside the family, learning natural emotional separation this way. In today’s world it is increasingly difficult for them to cope with all of this
After hearing the above story, parents will take their children’s phones away.
That wouldn’t be a good solution. I don’t want to frighten people, but make them aware of the mechanisms we are dealing with. The pain of growing up is something natural. The task for the adult is to see this, but also to bolster the teenager’s feeling that they can cope with it; that they are not dealing with it alone. With our support, a young person, who today is struggling internally, will most likely become a valued and effective adult. Only, one mustn’t judge them or reinforce their fears. Instead of worrying about how to organize children’s lives, let’s learn to listen to and understand them.
Parts of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.
A psychologist and systemic psychotherapist, she specializes in intercultural psychotherapy. She gives consultations for parents seeking help dealing with bringing up children.
Translated from the Polish by Annie Jaroszewicz
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