Dr Shyamala Vatsa

Wonder Years

Relating to your teen - Dr Shyamala Vatsa

Youth, today, have it all. So it seems. They have their own sets of challenges, struggles and dreams. Dr Shyamala Vatsa analyzes factors that potentially impact the mental wellbeing and health of the Indian youth.

As I said before, the biggest asset teenagers can have is an open, trusting relationship with their parents. One where they can approach them freely, without fear of a backlash of some sort. Parents, even those who seem extremely unreasonable, have their child’s best interests at heart. However, what a parent thinks is best for their young son or daughter may not tally with what the youngster thinks is best. Either of them may be wrong, or maybe neither is.

The most common issues I encounter between parents and kids are:

  • Academic performance and parental expectations
  • Time spent on social media/internet browsing
  • Curfews, and being out late with friends
  • Having a boyfriend/girlfriend
  • Abuse of alcohol, cigarettes and drugs
  • Negative or defiant attitude towards parents
  • Habits that ignore house rules, like pushing empty pizza boxes under the bed
  • Symptoms relating to real psychiatric problems

For each of these to be resolved, there has to be a good relationship between the youngster and their parents built up over years, starting in infancy. The basic building blocks of any relationship are trust and respect, of which trust is primary. Every infant starts out trusting his parents. Maintaining this and building on it further is the parents’ job. And this happens through toddler stage, childhood and teenage. Disagreements and arguments are unavoidable, and this is where respect comes in. If disagreements are resolved in a democratic, reasoned way rather than with “because I say so” or a wallop, a child grows up trusting that his parents will not go ballistic if there is a difference of opinion in any of the situations listed above; the child trusts that there’s room for dialogue and resolution.

Sometimes, parents and children discuss a problem rationally but are unable to find a solution. They call in a third party to arbitrate, usually a relative, or a friend of the parents’. If this doesn’t work out, it is worth seeking help from a professional for a discussion and unbiased advice. As an example I cite the case of a 15-year-old girl whose parents brought her in for a consultation last year. She was getting low grades, and her parents thought it was because she was lazy and didn’t study long enough. It turned out she had Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), was started on treatment, and performed unexpectedly well in her ICSE papers!

What is seen as bad behaviour could be a coping mechanism adopted by a teenager with genuine psychiatric problems. This is never obvious, so the behaviour is almost always taken at face value. Very anxious youngsters often smoke or drink to quell anxiety. So do young people on the verge of a psychotic breakdown, as they may be hearing threatening voices, or believe their laptops are being hacked. Indeed, parents often bring their wards in with complaints like “he has attendance shortage in college”, “she’s on her laptop all night and sleeps all day”, with no idea of the demons their children are battling in their heads. 

There is also another point I need to touch upon here. Some children are wired in a way that makes it hard for them to assess risks and foresee the consequences of their actions. As a result, they create problems wherever they go. They are unable to understand how others feel, and do not conform to what society, including family, expects of them. This is a completely different kettle of fish, and their problems with their parents, or their parents’ with them, cannot always be sorted out easily.

A lot of patience is required to find the root cause of any teen behavior that adults consider a problem. Seeking professional help should not be considered to indicate poor parenting; it’s really no different from consulting a pediatrician to find the source of infection if a child is running a fever.

Parents are a child’s greatest support, and children are a parent’s greatest joy. Therefore, this relationship should be nurtured as a precious and sacred one by both children and the parents, a sturdy bulwark against the travails of teenage life.

Dr Shyamala Vatsa is a Bangalore-based psychiatrist who has been practicing for over twenty years. This column on youth will appear every fortnight in this space. If you have any comments or queries you would like to share, please write to her at columns@whiteswanfoundation.org