This was published in both the Irish Times and The Irish Examiner. I wrote this in response to growing concerns and media coverage of teenagers and their behaviors. As a psychologist who works with teens I wanted to address adult behavior and how that impacts teen behavior. Teen behavior cannot and must not be seen as an isolated phenomenon.
I am a counseling psychologist working in private practice in Cork city and county. Part of my work involves co-facilitating a personal development and drugs prevention programme with transition year students, and much of my client base is made up of adolescents. I am therefore privy to much of what occurs in teenage life today and the frustrations and enormous difficulties faced by the average teenager.
I am tired of hearing about how awful/irresponsible morally lacking/disrespectful disruptive today’s teenagers are. It is true that I3-year-old drinkers are vomiting on Patrick Street. It is also true that young girls are involved in vicious fights every weekend and can be as violent as young men. It has become normal to expect squad cars outside a nightclub in anticipation of the inevitable drink- or drug-fuelled brawl.
We are all familiar with the sight of wobbling young boys and girls – because that’s what they are – on Junior Cert result night, never mind Leaving Cert result night. Horrific stories of sexual assault and rape have become so frequent that they no longer necessarily make headline news. We are, I believe, becoming desensitised to this particular brand of horror and some may even blame how the “young girls dress nowadays”.
Young girls themselves have trouble identifying the pain of assault because in the current atmosphere they expect to be groped if they go to a night-club looking attractive. And young boys expect that they should grope and/or score as often as possible to escape the ridicule of their peers who are, inside, feeling the same unreasonable pressure. Plus, you have to be out of your head on drink to really be part of the gang, because now a good night out is one you can’t remember.
And many of them can’t remember. Except perhaps flashes of a fight, or getting sick on a footpath, or of a heady sexual encounter with someone who could have been anyone.
Adults are very good at complaining about this behaviour. From our perfect ivory towers we judge the pitiful teenage brats who have these appalling behavioral problems” and “wear clothes that make them look like prostitutes” and so on.
Has anyone stopped to ask why teenagers are drinking so much? Why do they need drugs to feel normal? What are their lives like and what do they see? Who is designing, marketing, and profiting from the sale of teenagers’ clothes? What guidance are we giving them? How much do we actually listen to what they are going through?
Our job as adults is to educate children and teenagers about how to live healthy and fulfilling lives. One of the most effective ways to teach anything is to “model” it. The teenagers’ job is to push against us so that they can find their own personality and grow safely within the boundaries set by us. They test and struggle and need us to be very clear on what is acceptable and what is not. This creates security for the growing person.
Life for young people has changed dramatically in the last decade. They are being bombarded by images of the “perfect” body, the perfect phone, the perfect clothes, the perfect career, the perfect sexual partner, the perfect drug. They are now more than adolescents – they are consumers. And they are worth a fortune to drinks companies, the cosmetics industry, the music industry.
In my opinion they are responding naturally to their environment. They are pushing against the boundaries – only to discover that there aren’t many. It is he adults of this country who are behaving disgracefully. Adults have somehow lost the ability to say no to themselves and to their children.
We are giving into the demands of children. And what they are demanding is harmful. We make light of being legless, we are greedy consumers who would rather build an incinerator than recycle, we buy into the perfect body image and scorn those who don’t fit in.
We are the ones who are teaching our teenagers to be irresponsible, to hide feelings of inadequacy in a bottle of vodka or a syringe of Botox.
We have no right to criticise our children. They are merely doing what they are told.