Due to the ease of access to the internet, children and adolescents are exposed to news, sexually explicit content, and violent media from a very young age. Additionally, rising stress levels regarding the Covid-19 pandemic, uncertainty about the future, and mounting pressure on children to succeed have created the perfect petri dish for mental health issues.
Children are forced to achieve better grades, participate in multiple extra-curricular activities, work towards their career as soon as they reach age 12, and be the perfect child. Teenagers go through intense changes in a short amount of time and are still expected to not ask any questions, talkback, assert themselves, or change their likes and dislikes. Of course, this is not mentioning the pressure they are under regarding achieving the right grades and getting into a good university.
However, all this pressure forces children to grow up and mature more quickly than they are emotionally ready for. This exposure and pressure change a child’s reward activity center and can lead to a greater risk of depression in adolescence or adulthood. This can lead to a whole host of issues such as depression, anxiety, high stress, perfectionism, procrastination, imposter syndrome, sleep difficulties, loss of energy, disinterest, disordered eating, and substance use.
To help understand how parents, guardians, and teachers can help the children and adolescents around them, we talk to Counseling Psychologist Aparna Keshav. With over 20 years of experience, Aparna has witnessed first-hand the changing nature of mental health awareness and the need to innovate. She focuses on providing support to children, allowing them to explore themselves, giving them a safe space, and most importantly, choosing to always stay updated.
With a young, new generation caught in the midst of major socio-economic, political, and cultural changes, it is our duty to keep up with the future of your society and encourage them.
Q: What are some of the most common concerns that parents and teachers bring up regarding a child? Does this differ for adolescents?
A: Concerns differ across age due to the different stages of brain development. An adolescent is capable of higher cognitive thinking, whereas children until the age of 10 or 11 are still in the fantasy stage, and their thinking is mostly abstract.
For primary and upper primary children, issues are more to do with:
- The routine setting
- Sensory processing issues
- Sleeping habits
- Slow learning
- Aggressive or passive behavior
- Absence of eye contact
- Inappropriate language
Broadly, children can be categorized as ‘attention-seekers’ and ‘avoiders.’ Attention seekers are usually misunderstood as naughty and hyper, but in reality, children need attention which leads to this attention-seeking behavior. Avoiders are passive, shy, silent, inexpressive, and tend to go unnoticed.
Whereas in high school, or as adolescents, common issues are:
- Peer pressure
- Learning issues
- Argumentative nature
- Physical violence
- Disrespect towards parents, guardians, teachers, and other authority figures
- Defiant behaviors such as intentional rule-breaking and cheating
- Mental health issues such as depression, self-harm, suicidal behavior, stress and anxiety, and substance addictions
In adolescents, these issues are mainly due to an identity crisis as they are going through many hormonal changes, and hence, confusion, anger, and other minor health issues are common. Adolescence is a turbulent and vulnerable phase that brings about both physical and psychological changes in the child. Parents and teachers should acknowledge and understand their needs, support them, and give them the freedom they need without being overly controlling.
Q: Many studies have debunked the claim that witnessing violence through TV shows, movies, and video games leads to increased aggression. Yet, it is an enduring stereotype, and can often hamper a child’s downtime activities and social learning. How do we combat this misconception?
A: There is a common misconception that children get aggressive or violent only by watching media – TV shows, movies, and video games, etc.
However, the media is just one aspect. The parenting styles, environment, and influences from the community and society also matter. In actuality, there are numerous success stories of young achievers who have made marvelous use of media. Media is extremely helpful in connecting people, saving time, increasing efficiency, and providing education and information.
Of course, there are always some people who do not engage with the media wisely, and witnessing violence can lead to increased aggression in them. However, this is due to a lack of media education.
There is both a positive and negative impact of media on children and adolescents.
The child accesses media content as it is convenient, entertaining, and exciting while being a great way to cope with boredom, stress, loneliness, and different mood states. More importantly, it requires considerably less effort, patience, and social skills as opposed to human interaction.
We can manage this by educating students about the wise usage of media and by helping them understand purpose-related and non-purpose related use of media. Purpose-related includes viewing media for:
- Enhancing creativity
- Understanding the world around us
- Being prosocial
This will also help keep a student balance their eating habits, sleeping habits, socializing, performance in academics, and other activities.
Non-purpose access includes:
- Excessive gaming
- Inappropriate content such as sexual or violence-based content
This leads to an imbalance in sleep, health, development of phobias and fears, and a maladaptive risky lifestyle where academics takes a toll.
To combat this issue, parents’ involvement is very important as they need to connect with their child, accept them, acknowledge the deeper need for using media, and help fill that gap. For instance, if a child likes sports and having fun with their friends, the parents can get them involved in outdoor activities. Additionally, they can aid their child’s mental health by giving them space, going easy on them, and not focusing solely on academics.
Also, if parents and teachers can become role models regarding healthy usage of media, the child will certainly emulate that behavior. To help a young child, parents can monitor their media usage, set time limits, co-view, and discuss fantasy from reality.
The solution is in utilizing media and technology wisely to uplift and transform ourselves rather than demonizing them.
Q: Do you find that parents would rather stay in ignorance about their child going through psychological and behavioral difficulties than accept that they may need help from a professional? How do we go about changing this?
A: There is a massive stigma surrounding mental health issues due to which most parents are unable to accept their child’s psychological or behavioral issues. In my personal experience as well, most parents fail to consult clinical professionals when their child is found to have issues as they are scared about what their relatives and neighbors will say.
However, for milder issues in attention deficits, hyperactivity, avoidance, etc., general counseling alone helps. Whereas, for concerns such as learning disorders, slow learners, autism, depression, etc., long-term professional help is required. In some cases, intervention is required by more than two therapists – a psychologist and a remedial or occupational therapist.
The biggest concern is that sometimes neither parents nor teachers are equipped with the knowledge and skills required to handle children with additional needs, and hence there is a gap. The cost of therapy and regular sessions is another concern as not every parent and household can afford it.
The best way to bring a shift in this attitude is by creating more awareness about the importance of mental health in schools, colleges, and workplaces. We have been implementing this for the past four years in schools, with both parents and teachers, through programs tailored specifically to mental health. Fortunately, we have found a tremendous shift in the involvement and openness of both parents and teachers.
Awareness can also be brought about through print and social media. Another way is by making it mandatory for all schools to have a mental health professional associated with them. Though there is a rule for this, it is ignored by most schools.
Asking schools and pediatricians to maintain a directory of mental health professionals in the city or the neighborhood would also help as many of them are unaware of who to reach out to when help is needed.