Let’s Talk About Teenage Violence: What ails a growing child’s psyche?
In Part 4 of #LetsTalkAboutTeenageViolence, psychiatrist Rajesh Sagar says parents should watch out for signs such as lying, stealing, frequent tantrums, aggressive behaviour towards younger siblings and pets to curb teen rage.india Updated: Mar 22, 2018 07:21 IST
The World Health Organization (WHO) describes youth violence as a global public health problem. It can range from bullying and physical fighting to more severe sexual and physical assault to homicide.
Worldwide, an estimated 200 000 homicides take place among those aged 10–29 each year, making it the fourth leading cause of death of people in this age group, according to a 2016 WHO review on youth violence.
When it is not fatal, youth violence has a serious, often lifelong, impact on a person’s physical, psychological and social functioning. It also greatly increases the costs of health, welfare and criminal justice services; reduces productivity; and decreases the value of property.
Most experts working in the field of psychiatry will agree that youth violence, especially teenage violence, has increased over the years. I am not only talking about the cases I come across, but also what we see around or read about.
If you look at the past couple of decades, not only has the number of teenagers exhibiting violent tendencies increased, but also the intensity of violence has changed for the worse.
I have observed that the seeds of violent behaviour in teenage or adulthood is usually sown during one’s childhood; temper tantrums could be a symptom.
Children have even started behaving violently when their demands are not met. I recently saw a 12-year-old who misbehaved with his parents merely because they didn’t buy him a Playstation. He stopped talking to them and started throwing things around the house when the parents tried to speak to him. I had to counsel the child and the parents for months before things returned to normal.
While this couple was aware and sought help when things got out of hand, there are many parents who live in a state of denial and take their child’s aggressive behaviour for tantrums that the child will eventually grow out of.
Most children have aggressive impulses in their growing years — throwing or breaking their toys when angry or harming pets that are soft targets.
The reasons are many, ranging from general frustration to stress, a poor coping mechanism, cut-throat competition, high expectations to even lack of social support as their family doesn’t spend sufficient of time with the children.
Social support in the form of family and friends works as a great buffer for a child trying to channelise anger, frustration or any negative emotion.
How the child reacts or copes with stress is important. But these days I mostly see them to be maladaptive; parents tend to reinforce the negative behaviour by giving in to their (at times unreasonable) demands.
Also, there is an element of guilt in working parents that makes them vulnerable to yield to pressure created by the child and may lead to impulsivity and behaviour problems among children.
Someone should hear them out and show them what is right and what’s wrong. Of all the cases I have seen, a large number didn’t have people around them to talk to when they felt low.
They couldn’t learn to contain their anger ; that also led to low frustration tolerance. There is very raw release of anger in most kids of today that is taking its toll on their temperament.
Parents nowadays have become so engrossed that they do not get to spend enough time with their child. Hired care-takers, who can never fill their shoes, are standing in.
Parenting was an important task earlier; now earning more money seems to have become the priority. Ironically, it is to provide their child a better life, but in this attempt it is the child who is getting neglected. The single-child norm that is fast becoming common is also to be blamed to a great extent as parents tend to over-pamper an only child.
Strict discipline used to be maintained in families once, but now parents give in to their children’s demands simply as a way of compensating for not being able to spend enough time with them.
Another reason, and an important one, for growing teenage violence is increased exposure to all kinds of external stimuli, especially mobile phones and other gadgets, which gives them access to content with extreme forms of violence.
Then there is a tendency to experiment. The current lot is extremely curious and inclined to experiment, which is why alcohol and drugs are tried at a very young age; that also contributes to very poor judgment.
Not all children have criminal tendencies, in fact, the percentage is extremely small. I very rarely see children or teenagers with criminal tendencies.
Talking of teens belonging to poor families, they are vulnerable to different contributing factors for aggressive behaviour, such as migration. The families are migrating to cities from villages, and it is a task to adjust to horrible living conditions in the cities for these people.
Parents again have no time as they are busy providing food and shelter for the family. There is very little space to themselves as a large number is living in one room, as a result which these children face a lot of negativity at a very early age.
Signs that parents should watch out for include manipulative behaviour, lying, stealing, throwing frequent tantrums, aggressive behaviour towards younger siblings or pets, hyperactivity, a drop in performance, and aloofness. In most cases I have come across, parents had these complaints.
Not all children need professional help as parental guidance works for most of them. A lot also depends on what kind of example parents are setting for the child; children tend to emulate their parents a lot. So you have to be mindful of your actions and words in front of a child.
Parent-teacher communication is also important as a child often faces problems in school that parents need to be aware of. A small percentage of children actually require professional treatment, that too, mostly in the form of counselling.
The very first step of this counselling is behavioural analysis by talking to the child, parents and even school teachers. I try to get to the reason behind a child’s abnormal behaviour to draft a psycho-social management plan.
Then I teach them relaxation techniques that have helped significantly in a majority of cases. In very rare cases do we need to put the child on medicines that could be anti-anxiety drugs or even anti-depressants for a few weeks to a few months.
But nothing can be more effective than familial support. If we want our teens to grow in a healthy manner, it is high time the family takes the responsibility. I have seen a child’s behaviour transforming marvellously once parents started taking an interest in their child’s life.
(The author is professor, department of psychiatry, All India institute of Medical Sciences, Delhi)
This is the fourth of a five-part series, Let’s Talk About Teenage Violence. You can read partsone, two and three here. To join the conversation, tweet or post using #LetsTalkAboutTeenageViolence on social media.