Teens and Self-harm
A few months back, a trending news item caught my attention. The headline read that recent research found a sharp rise in reported incidents of self-harm amongst girls in the UK aged between 13 and 16. A review of articles in the media that day revealed controversy over the validity of the findings. Despite the detail of these research statistics being in dispute, there is no doubt that certain self-harm practices have been on the increase for some years now and are generally of a growing concern.
I have worked in mental health for 10 years and my training in Transactional Analysis Psychotherapy as well as many years of personal therapy have given me in-depth understanding of why people behave the way we do. That morning I was intrigued by the report I saw on the TV, reason being that a clip was shown of a girl who suffers from this problem, talking about control. Regarding emotional wellbeing, I hear a lot of opinions on social media that sound misinformed or at least coming from a place of confusion. But this girl’s testimony made a lot of sense to me.
Power and Control
Many individuals who self-harm talk about a short-lived sense of relief from emotional distress. And plenty of self-harmers say that their chosen act of self-harm makes them feel in control. The girl in the video was very clear; she said that cutting herself helped her feel in control. This resonates with stories around another growing problem, especially prevalent in young females: eating disorders. Hearing about children’s sense of control took my thinking to articles I have shared on my Facebook page about changes in parenting, education and play and how children’s sense of control has been affected by current trends and the importance of this to the wellbeing of relevant generations.
Play prepares children for later life. How, where and with whom children play is now generally quite different to how it was for their parents just one generation back. Later in a child’s life, our kids are having their weekly schedules filled up with structured activities. I don’t wish to come across as critical of parents who do this, as I am aware of cases where parents wish and endeavour to get their kids to “play outside more”, and challenges have arisen to make them retaliate after giving it a good go!
But in the spirit of furthering our understanding of how the rapid changes in our lives are affecting us collectively, I wanted to share the awareness that play and social interaction for children in past generations, involved a much greater sense of control for the children involved. Apart from generally having much more intervention and support from parents, children’s leisure time is now filled with activities that are organised by grown-ups. Activities are structured, offering children little opportunity to take control of what happens, where and when it happens and with whom. They have little freedom to come and go as they please and rules are dictated by adults who create the activities. There is much value in the aspect of play where children create games, i.e. ways of interacting with each other and negotiate with each other the terms and conditions or rules and boundaries to structure their time together.
This is not to say that to address self-harming behaviours, teenagers should just be given more independence or control. Care for such a delicate condition should be looked at individually and in context, with the appropriate professionals. It does however seem to me that parents generally, could do with being less involved in their children’s affairs and letting them get on with things on their own more often. One easy way to keep yourself in check with regards to whether you are overdoing it is to ask yourself the simple question of could they realistically do this by themselves (even if they aren’t going to do it as well as you, of course!). Finding a maths tutor or physically getting to piano class are examples of things they can do with minimum intervention from others.
Pressure on Young People
Parents are investing and expecting more of their offspring – academically and in other fields. However, allowing children to fail is important as the reality is that we can’t all always win and when we don’t, we need the skills to deal with the experience. Parents who want to make sure their children are fully prepared for a transition may not be allowing them to experience ordinary traumas, important to the development of skills for resilience in life’s challenging times.
Today’s parents are not just more involved but unrealistically expect that like they likely did in comparison to their parents, their offspring will achieve well beyond what they have in socio-economic terms. This is in ignorance of the fact that we are living a different era especially in economic terms, where growth has generally slowed down and social mobility (in the UK) is said to have stagnated.
Pressure on Mothers
Parents today spend more time than ever attending to children’s individual needs. A generation or two back most of us had no awareness of individual needs – we weren’t allowed them! With tight resources and a world without disposable nappies or washing machines, one had to eat what was served and if you were to go places, you had to get yourself there. Yet despite giving our young so much, many mums still feel bad.
Men are more involved in parenting than in the past, yet it’s still mothers who are generally the primary care givers. Social pressures seem higher than ever and many suffer from never being able to feel like they are doing enough. Our economy thrives on making us feel like we aren’t giving our children enough.
Mums in Therapy
Since my return to Gibraltar I have been working with families and in the past couple of years I have worked with plenty of mothers in individual and group therapy settings. Many mums who suffer from anxiety and depression have high standards and fail to acknowledge how well they are actually doing. The women I see in my private practice are excellent mothers yet still feel anxious and guilty on a regular basis. The good news is that women who find a therapist they click with, do noticeably benefit from psychotherapy and mothers find that even their children seem to feel better once mum feels more OK and empowered by empathic, non-judgemental support.