Angela Tilby: It’s not an easy time for teens 

07 September 2018

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THIS year’s edition of the Children’s Society’s Good Childhood Report has provoked agonised debate about why childhood unhappiness is increasing (News, 31 August).

Teenage girls are particularly at risk: more than one fifth self-harmed in the past year. The report’s authors conclude that adolescents are simply overwhelmed by pressures on how they should look, who they should like, and how they should behave.

It is not an easy time to be a teenager, especially a girl. But there is, perhaps, a danger of a loss of perspective. In Western culture, adolescence is an extended time of transition between childhood and adulthood. We make a great deal of it. The music and fashion industries go out of their way to target teenagers, conveying the message that they can do or be anything — they are agents of their own destiny.

Yet this beguiling invitation comes at a time when many feel least secure and least in control. Those who try to help sometimes end up contributing to the problem. Into my inbox last week came a plug for the American guidebook The Confidence Code, which is designed to “teach girls to embrace risk, deal with failure, and be their most authentic selves”.

There may be good advice here — I haven’t read it — but it would be unwise to forget that an epidemic of teenage anxiety is also a marketing opportunity. Teenagers, with their often acute perception, can often recognise that what is offered to them is as much for others’ advantage as their own.

Freud taught that a healthy human being was one capable of love and work. Becoming a person in this sense is the greatest challenge that most human beings face. Adolescence marks the discovery of what it means to be an independent member of the human species.

Even well-adjusted teenagers can be rocked by moods of depression and anxiety. I remember being appalled by the revelation that hit me, at about the age of 14, of how boring and meaningless most adult life seemed to be. For a time, I simply could not imagine how study, employment, and relationships could ever be enough to make life worthwhile.

I think of this now as a glimpse of despair. But, somehow, I stumbled on, and eventually got through relatively unscathed. Some teenagers simply have to discover for themselves whether or not they have faith in life itself, and they may need support in doing so. Faith in God helps. For most, in the end, a kind of grace kicks in. Life simply becomes more interesting, friendships deepen, a future opens up.

As the new term begins, teachers and parents should not be necessarily pathologising teen experience, but asking how they can help them to deal with the onset of the ordinary, existential human misery and self-doubt that accompany this earthly pilgrimage.

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