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The turbulent years

Adolescence is like an emotional minefield. Parental care, says Jitendra Nagpal, helps a teenager skirt dangers.

education Updated: Jul 14, 2009 17:24 IST
Jitendra Nagpal

Newspapers these days are awash with stories of troublesome teens who rob, rape, run people over, and even kidnap younger children for ransom and murder them. Reading such reports puts us in a state of utter consternation.

Incidents of juvenile crime, some of them involving children as young as 12, are common in almost every metro now. A stunned world watches, unsure of what to do or, indeed, if anything can be done at all. Some efforts are being made — enormous resources are spent on programmes to fight drug abuse, family violence, juvenile crime, school truancy and a host of other problems. Above all, there is increasing criticism of the changing role of the family and lack of parental monitoring in modern society.

Familial impact
It is a natural assumption that children’s psycho-social health is largely a result of their upbringing. The idea of “ineffective parenting” pushing teenagers towards maladjustment and aggression is now universal. Most of us can think of and see examples of children who are unable to cope with the demands of everyday life. Many of these children came from affluent families. So money or the lack of it is not necessarily a major factor behind juvenile crime.

What does seem to be a major factor is the family environment, especially parental behaviour. No educational literature has comprehensively defined what constitutes adequate, optimal or even poor parenting. The reason for this is related to the enormous complexity of child rearing. While a newborn needs a mother who can ‘understand’ his or her body language and help the infant to organise his psychological state into predictable rhythms, a teenager will benefit from a parent who can help him or her explore the range of socially acceptable experiences in this era of abundant distractions. Poor supervision of children by parents and the use of harsh physical punishment to discipline them are strong predictors of violence during the teenage years.

Violence in teenage has also been strongly linked to parental conflict in early childhood and to lack of attachment between parents and children. Hostility in the family can work in both directions. Aggressive behaviour in a son can make a mother withdraw emotionally, supervise less well and become harsher. Hostility between the parents, leading to frequent quarrels, alcoholism etc, can make a teen emotionally cut himself off from his family.

Contradictory needs
A teen’s aggressive behaviour often stems from his/her need for independence; but paradoxically, a teenager may equally fear independence. This conflict is compounded when parents dither between treating a teenager as an adult and a child. It is the timing of giving a teen new rights and responsibilities, not disagreement over values, that causes much of the friction.

While teens rebel for their freedom, they also want approval. Studies show that teenagers with low self-esteem typically have parents who are indifferent to the success or failure of their children. And low self-esteem often manifests itself in sly malice or criminal tendencies.

Role defining
Family being the most influential factor in shaping one’s character, parents must realise that family cannot be substituted by money, gadgets or other material possessions. This ‘surrogate parenting’ turns a teen into a self-centred person. Rather than being an ‘ATM father’ or a ‘Sunday mother’, be a dedicated parent.