Dr Shyamala Vatsa

Wonder Years

Who is a ‘typical teenager’? - Dr Shyamala Vatsa

Troubled youngsters may be disillusioned, angry and sad. They are often sceptical because they think they may not be understood.

The only people I have heard use this term are parents whose teenagers are troublesome. Parents who are worried about their sons or daughters staying out late, using alcohol in excess, staying in bed till lunch-time and getting grades just good enough to justify their place in life as ‘students’. They say that their children use home as a place to sleep and to get laundry done, and their parents as an ATM. Here, I’m merely quoting. These parents accept anger outbursts and intemperate language as part of being a typical teenager. And they always say this with a self-conscious smile, so as to not upset the surly/indifferent youngster slouching in the chair across the table from me.

Astounding though it sounds, parents say “she’s a good kid, not a typical teenager” when they want to emphasise that their child gets good grades, has friends that have been introduced to them, and is back home before they can start worrying about all the things that can happen to kids, especially girls, in our cities today. If they are out partying late at night, they keep parents informed of their whereabouts and identify a teetotaller to drive them back home after the party.

A large number of teenagers I meet are certainly concerned about their grades and about getting a good college education. Okay, they are not epitomes of perfection – and need not be either – and goof off now and then, occasionally fail a test or exam, or miss an afternoon of classes to hang out with friends. They don’t tell their parents ‘everything’, which is normal. That’s what growing up is about: becoming independent individuals who take responsibility for their actions. They are not expected to have exactly the same values as their parents, and don’t. But they do care about their families, and enjoy living in harmony with their parents and siblings.

There are no typical teenagers any more than there are typical senior citizens. The only thing that typifies youth is their legitimate need to grow into independent adults, and that is part of the natural process we call Life. Everything they do is in the service of this innate need. I am not playing down the trials of teen years, because it is a trying time as any teen will tell you, in terms of identity, physical appearance, academics, peer relationships and planning for college. I am only refusing to hype them up into dystopic scenarios that no doubt exist, but do not affect a majority of teens.

From where has this stereotype arisen? ‘Typical teenagers’ are often troubled kids. They are insecure and don’t feel good about themselves. They cover up their inadequacies with either a blasé or an aggressive attitude. Their problems stem from a combination of nature and circumstances.

A troubled youngster may be disillusioned, angry and sad. He may be deeply depressed and wish to go away forever. He might be lonely and confused, with no one to talk things over with. Everybody needs support at some time in their lives, and it’s okay to seek help. I know that the first step - making that phone call to a stranger to set up an appointment – is difficult, because kids have told me so. They either sound terrified on the phone at first contact, or adopt a nonchalant tone that doesn’t completely conceal their apprehensions.

At the first session, youngsters are often sceptical because they think they may not be understood. Many young people have told me that they started looking forward to their sessions after the first one, because just the act of pouring all the clutter out of their system at the first meeting made them feel a lot better! They could think more clearly, and hope returned.

Very often, they benefit from antidepressant medicines taken for a few months, under supervision. Both, long-standing stress as well as sudden shocks, take their toll on people’s minds, and antidepressant medicines help considerably. And they are not addictive, and do not turn people into zombies, contrary to popular belief. Therapy can be done more successfully with the medicine-assisted reduction in anxiety and depression.

Dr Shyamala Vatsa is a Bangalore-based psychiatrist who has been practicing for over twenty years. If you have any comments or queries you would like to share, please write to her at columns@whiteswanfoundation.org