x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Kids these days! Or, rather, parents who forgot how to parent

Are children really getting worse, generation by generation? Don't you believe it.

A 17-year-old schoolboy in Amman killed his mother, father, two brothers and an uncle this month with gun shots to the head. The reason for his homicidal outburst was given simply as family "differences".

Teen behavioural disorders do not often result in family homicide but the phenomenon is not unknown in the UAE. The recent drug-dealing conviction of two young men, who were sentenced to death by the Court of First Instance, can also be linked to some seriously self-destructive behaviour.

There are too many reports these days stirring concern about social, emotional and behavioural problems among young people. Smartphones a moral danger, parents told, ran one recent headline. Family experts take parents to task for unruly children, said another.

This is by no means limited to the UAE or the region. A cursory glance around the global mediascape reveals many tales of adolescent anti-social behaviour, child soldiers, spikes in teen pregnancy and juvenile crime lords.

But surely the imputing of psycho-pathology to the younger generation is a time-honoured tradition, immortalised in old expressions such as "kids these days!".

My mother had serious concerns about my Sony Walkman, and my addiction to Space Invaders. I'm sure her mother saw degeneration in the Beatles and US television. Perhaps parents are always right; maybe each generation is irredeemably worse than the previous one.

A psychiatrist colleague of mine recently made an interesting point on this issue: people tend to use the way their parents raised them as the model for dealing with their own kids. So the model is always two or three decades out of date.

This 20- to 30-year lag would not have been an issue when the rate of social, cultural and technological transition was gentler. For millennia, the world didn't change very much in any 20- or 30-year interval.

But now the rate of transition has become frantic, and few nations on the planet have witnessed such rapid change as the UAE. Imagine King Henry VIII trying to raise Paris Hilton; that's a generation chasm, not merely a generation gap.

Perhaps, if and when the pace of change slows down, we may be able to develop the family structures and types of relationships we imagine people once enjoyed.

Indeed, there was a time when a son could be fairly certain of taking up his father's trade. Today we tell children they are studying for professions that haven't even been invented yet. What an uncertain world we are bequeathing to our progeny - and uncertainty is the mother of anxiety.

Parenting is, of course, key. Decades of research in developmental and clinical psychology have shown the importance of early childhood experience in shaping the adults we become. British psychologist John Bowlby, a founding father of attachment theory, summarised it best: "The unloved often become the unloving." This idea has been supported by a recent study of parental rejection, including 10,000 participants from 18 nations over three decades, by anthropologist Ronald Rohner of the University of Connecticut, and others.

One of the key findings, published last month in Personality and Social Psychology Review, was that children who were rejected by their parents tended to feel more anxious and insecure than others, and also more hostile and aggressive. Rejection by a father was often more consequential than maternal rejection. For centuries, this suggests, the blame for "problem children" has been unfairly laid mainly at the feet of mothers.

Perhaps some of the child-behavioural cases being lamented in the media are manifestations of hostility and aggression borne from perceived parental rejection.

Also, some teen hostility may centre on perceptions that adults have irreparably damaged the environment and collapsed economies. Who wouldn't be at least a little mad?

That said, I believe the young generation will grow up intent on making the world a better place. I see that in the eyes of my own children. This generation, facing huge challenges, deserves and needs acceptance, guidance and love.


Justin Thomas is an assistant psychology professor at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi

On Twitter: @jaytee156