My child is sad. I can’t go into many more details than that without breaking his trust, but suffice to say, he is very sad indeed. He’s too sad for us to cheer up with a treat or ice cream. Too sad to play. Too sad to see a hopeful future in front of him. And his sadness makes us sad too.
So we’re trying to work out what to do and that’s been really hard. I like to make things better, sort stuff out. If something breaks, I fix it or replace it, but I don’t seem to be able to fix him and I don’t want to replace him, so I’m trying to understand what’s within my gift. I’m learning.
One of the things I’ve been learning is how adolescence impacts on the teenage brain. Through Sarah-Jayne Blakemore’s brilliant book ‘Inventing Ourselves: The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain,” I’m learning that he’s in a process of huge biological change that is creating behaviours in him that neither of us really understand. He’s enormously emotional (his limbic brain has expanded). He’s deeply self conscious. Everything his Dad or I do seems to be an embarrassment – even appearing at the window of his drama club to see if he’s finished. All this is apparently normal. He’s deeply concerned with how he is viewed by his peers and convinced that he is failing on every score. Apparently that is also normal. But he seems abnormally sad.
One of the things making him sad is the state of the world around him. He feels the future is hopeless, that the human species is doomed because of climate change. He’s afraid of the political climate adults seem to have created, overwhelmed by the expectation that he knows what and who he is to become and that he should be working hard for this seemingly unappealing future. I realise as a parent, in an attempt to make him a ‘better’ person, I’ve shared so many stories of people who are worse off, that I’ve inadvertently made him feel like he doesn’t deserve the life he has: that he is worthless and undeserving of it. And his school, in their eagerness to educate children into understanding that there is suffering in the world, are exacerbating that. Exacerbating that with a curriculum I helped to design because I worked there once.
I’ve realised in the last couple of years, as a teacher and parent, that we need to be careful about the narratives we present to children. Instead of putting them in a bath of empathy, pouring sorrow over them to the point of drowning, we need to help them to be actively compassionate – to be empowered to seek and make changes. We need to expose them to the solutions others are finding to the problems in the world. To imbue them with the hope and belief that change can come and that they will be part of that change. We can’t and shouldn’t protect them from the truth – they’ll see it anyway – but we do need to show them less doom and more boom. Greta Thunberg, taking on the world’s leaders on climate change; the young activists, inventors, and social entrepreneurs who are not waiting around for adults to make a difference, but who are becoming the difference. We need to weave narratives of hope.
I’ve realised that his biggest rejections – those that sometimes seem ungrateful or rude – are those that come after an offering I’ve made. When I’ve arranged for us to do something I thought he would enjoy, made something I thought he would like, bought something I thought he wanted…It’s been hard to have those gifts pushed away and I’ve struggled to understand why he doesn’t seem to want them any more. But it’s about control. My child is telling me he’s afraid of the future; that he feels he has no control over it, or himself, or others, or his life. And so I try to control his feelings in the nicest possible ways and he pushes them away. He feels bad, tries to apologise, I get upset and he feels more worthless. It’s a tough cycle. But when I read Oliver James’ Love Bombing, something clicked into place. I can’t take control of his sadness, because trying to do so makes him feel more powerless and more sad. I need to find ways of giving him control.
I haven’t found them yet…I’m still learning. But it’s made me think of how school impacts on this need of a child/adolescent to have some sense of agency over their lives. His school, like all schools, has rules. It’s not a particularly strict school, compared to some. There are some pretty arbitrary uniform rules, but generally, he’s in a kind environment. And even so he speaks of adults shouting, he doesn’t understand the assessment system, he feels he’s on, as he put it, ‘a treadmill of expectations.’ And his school is gentle in comparison to some. In a zero-tolerance school, where does that natural need for control, for empowerment, for agency, trust, respect and responsibility go when there’s absolutely no room for choice or individuality? When even the conversation over lunch is dictated by teachers? Where corridors are silent, toilet trips are banned, teachers must be tracked with eye contact all the time? Where everything, down to the size of a pencil case, must be the same? Where does that need go?
I don’t know, but I look at my child. I look at the mental health stats for young people and I worry we’re seeing a tip of an iceberg. We need to be thinking, as parents, how we give our children the trust and breathing space to make their own choices. We need, as schools to be building a pedagogy of power, that gives children a sense of agency and control over their future and their identity. We’ve pushed our adult neurosis – our own fear of future – onto their shoulders, often with the best of intentions. But it’s too much. They’re cracking up. And it’s heartbreaking.