Today's children inhabit a different world and if things seem to go wrong, more often the trouble is with the parents' expectations…

As a practising psychotherapist, I have lost count of the number of calls I receive from anxious parents wanting me to counsel their children. “My son used to be the class topper, but now he's not even in the top ten”, seems to be the refrain. “Kids nowadays just don't listen to their parents any more. When we were kids…”, they go on. I tell them that life is different today. Children are actually very purposeful, even if their purpose is not always readily apparent to adults. Furthermore, they are overloaded with the kind of information that we, even as adults, would be hard-pressed to process. “Could you please see my daughter, anyway?”, they persist. How do you tell parents that the problem has more likely to do with the expectations they have of their children? I know that my stand on this matter does not make me particularly popular with my clients, but if popularity was what I was after, I wouldn't have become a psychiatrist.

Balanced view

Let me make one thing very clear: I do not wish to trivialise the issue of childhood behavioural vagaries; however, I have no desire to magnify it either. Unfortunately, this is what we tend to do nowadays. Parents tend to worry so much about their children's achievements and performance that they sometimes forget that their childhoods are just passing them by. Let me also add that I do understand parents' anxieties. Living in a hot-house of a social environment, they are beleaguered by fears, concerns and worries that their own parents would never have even conceived of. They lead stressful lives and are trying to provide their children the best possible opportunities to succeed. However, this is what becomes counterproductive, for, the children, sensitive as they are, pick up on the parents' fears, and respond with more unpredictable behaviour. And thus does the prophecy fulfil itself.

I am not for a moment suggesting that parents should not be concerned when their children start dropping grades or that they should pander to their extravagant tantrums. Modern science and child psychology have brought to our awareness that today's children are subject to all sorts of problems. Learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, child sexual abuse, oppositional defiant disorders (a persistent pattern of disobedience and defiance of all adult inputs), childhood depressions and developmental disorders like autism are being increasingly diagnosed in children over the last decade or two, and I recognise that these are serious problems. However, pressing the panic button at the earliest sign of academic underachievement does not help one bit. More often than not, we tend to push the pressure back on to the teachers, expecting them to take greater accountability for their students' foibles. However, as far as the child's mental health is concerned, this is not going to help either.

Many urban schools enlist the services of a counsellor to address such and other sticky problems pertaining to the child's behaviour. School counsellors play a very important role in enhancing the mental well-being of children, particularly those who come from very disturbed family or social environments and those who suffer from some of the diagnosable mental problems mentioned earlier; however, even they cannot be reasonably expected to function as ersatz parents to all their wards. Ideally, a school counsellor could help by making an evaluation of whether or not the child is disturbed enough to warrant psychological interventions. But setting up the counsellor as a kind of bogey-person whose services are to be resorted to when the child's behaviour is not up to some poorly defined par will only result in undermining the counsellor's credibility and the child's respect for adults.

Take a deep breath

In short, what I am saying is that when your child's behaviour seems a bit strange, or when your child drops grades, or when s/he seems to be actively rebelling against your diktats, don't go off the deep end. Your child need not be suffering from a mental disorder or a behavioural problem at all. Just take a step back and evaluate what kind of pressure you may inadvertently be bouncing on to the child; take fresh stock of your communication with your own spouse or the stress levels in your family, for, oftentimes, disturbances in these areas may be the cause of the problem. See if your child is unhappy with the school or is being bullied at school or in the neighbourhood. It could also well be that your children are just not happy with the subjects you have chosen for them, for their interests may lie somewhere else. Do try and remember that in contemporary times being an audio engineer or a DJ is as, if not more, paying, than, say, a software engineer.

Only then, visit a counsellor or child psychologist and take some guidance on what you can do to help the child through the crisis. But, most importantly, try not to be your child's friend or counsellor. For, what your child needs most at this time is a parent, not a friend. If you're lucky and manage to tide over the childhood and adolescence successfully, you may yet end up being your children's friend. But only when they have grown up, not when they are still children.

Contact the writer at: vijay.nagaswami@gmail.com