Maladjusted children, troublesome kids, problem children, – what is the meaning behind these labels, often used synonymously on children who do not fit into adult patterns of modern living?
Some of these children are even demonstrating very adequate and healthy reactions, considering their unsatisfactory emotional and social living circumstances. In fact, these children are often very normal, healthy and clever children. Do we realise this fact or are these children far too often victims of the measuring standards, set by an adult world ignoring fundamental knowledge about healthy personality formation for children?
Therefore, the question of to-day’s many “problem children” can always be seen from two very different angles:
- as children with serious personality problems, or
- as children who cause their adult world serious problems.
Sometimes both viewpoints are relevant, but in most cases the underlying causes are to be found in the child’s family structure and their way of living.
Teachers and child care workers sometimes try to explain the educational problems of today as a result of ‘the new child character’. Hereby they normally refer to the many rather omnipotent, narcissistic and needs-fixated children and youngsters of today. Most of these children have had painful experiences in their emotional dependence and social coping, and are indeed troublesome for family, schools, mates, society and most of all themselves. Some of these children will be referred for treatment and/or will experience extra-familial placements in order to mature by stimulating and developing their personalities and their social skills.
Or problem families?
But unfortunately only a few of these children will get a reasonable understanding in due time of how much their own family was a part of their daily problems and often the primary cause for their personality disturbances. Here I am referring to those many children suffering from the daily lack of intimate togetherness with their parents – children with job-busy parents focusing on their own needs and failing to find sufficient energy to participate in the sometimes very problematic world of a child.
Here children sometimes plan to create their own difficulties, make them very visible just to come into their parents’ focus, hoping to be important and loved. From here comes the sad rise in the number of neurotic children, the rise in children with anorexia and bulimia, the rise in suicidal children, the rise in children who abuse drugs etc.
Here the family should always – if possible – be taken seriously and shown respect by being involved in a planned way directly in the training and therapy programmes, aiming at consensus for the values in family-life for each family-member.
Here we must realise that the relations between the family members are damaged seriously and healing these relations should be the aim of the treatment plan if possible.
So – why do we not talk about ‘the new character of parents’ and the new way of family living? And how should we prepare and train next generation for parenthood? This is the logical beginning of the therapeutic process in order to treat developmentally threatened children, so-called ‘children at risk’.
I am reminded here of a little philosophical story from South Africa. A respected elder was talking to a child.
“What is your soul like?” the child asked.
“Within me are two dogs,” the elder began. “One dog is good and kind. The second dog is vicious and cruel. They fight constantly … the evil dog trying to defeat the good dog”. “Which one usually wins?” the child asked.
The elder reflected for a moment and said, “The one that I feed the most often.”
Referring to this story we could ask: how often do parents ‘feed’ their children and how and with what? Here I am referring more to time for the exchange of emotions, ethical norms and social behaviour than to the necessity for nutrition. How often do modern parents participate in the important activity of educational play?
The characteristics of the child of today are of course the result of a new parental concept of the family. Here, too many children have been left maybe too much in the hands of professional caretakers in day care, in schools, in leisure clubs and in sports clubs and with frequently changing, caring adults – strangers – people outside the family.
Therefore children’s personalities are sometimes moulded more by their relationships with other children than by those with responsible, stable, concerning and caring adults in the family. For these reasons we easily get computer-play children with strong action-oriented needs. Many of these children have not had their needs satisfied for being together intimately and with commitment to closely related adults – family members for whom they had strong feelings and whom they would hate to disappoint, who showed affection and love for the child, who provided the child with ethical understanding, in the daily demonstration of the difference between right and wrong, beautiful and ugly, safe and unsafe, etc. , adults ready for the possible conflicts necessary to demonstrate the boundaries for acceptable behaviour.
By contrast, so-called problem children have often been brought up by ignorant or weak, exhausted and/or immature parents who have focused on their own immediate needs. Contrary to public opinion, these parents, as with good parents, love their children and wish them the best from life, but they are for many different reasons unable to foster the positive development of the child’s personality. Often these children’s education is characterised by a lack of care and devotion. They are granted uncontrolled and inappropriate levels of freedom, sometimes with a strong touch of material spoiling, overprotection or laissez-faire, instead of planned caring by adults and support for the child in order to counteract anxiety in a safe way.
Needs-fixated adults seldom provide an upbringing for children with the firmness of resolve necessary for demonstrating the boundary posts of the unsociable land.
The impact of urban living
Among the reasons for this development towards a new parental concept of family life might be the population shift from the countryside to city life with its present sharp and artificial division between work life and leisure time and its focus on consumption and speed.
This fact causes a split-up in everyday life for the modern family. The stressful patterns of urban daily life often impede opportunities to share in family life. Everyone may be taken hostage in this development and especially the children. There are days when family members leave early in the morning in different directions, and no one knows exactly what the others are doing. And ten hours later the family meets again, exhausted. The family may become a rather unproductive spare-time community of separated generations, where modern technology secures the fewest possible demands and duties on family members, and where relaxation becomes the target in itself.
Much too often, the time which children and parents spend together is used for discussions on the allocation of the housework between the family members. It is too easy for children to experience themselves as part of their parent’s troublesome duties.
In welfare states in the western world the dramatic increase of family income in the last forty years has created possibilities for much greater consumption and more acquisition of material goods. Parents’ opportunities to buy certain freedoms are obvious. For instance they may purchase care and the responsibility for the daily life of children and the elderly in the family. Here the public service systems in welfare states, have become more and more prepared to take over. Day-care, not for 5 hours but for 10 hours per day, has become normal life for many children. More and more the elderly in the family have been hospitalised or admitted to residential care, not because they are sick but because they are old and their own families are not ready to provide the necessary support and care, as they are too busy, occupied by earning money for a modern living.
In the same period the family became smaller and smaller in number of persons. Fewer children were born. The increase in divorces created more single parent families. The number of family members dropped to an absolute minimum – two or three persons – indeed a nuclear family, and a very vulnerable one. In many modern countries, the family life of today must be seen as being in the risk zone where emotional problems are disturbingly escalating.
Families need support
The number of developmentally threatened children and families is growing alarmingly these days. There is a big need for a family policy supporting the network for the modern family to guarantee healthy mental growth.
Where the well-being of children and their families is seriously threatened, extra-familial care often seems the most relevant for the child and sometimes for the whole family, in order to build or rebuild the necessary relations between the family members to secure a healthy family life.
It is important, therefore, that all modern therapy aimed at healing the damaged relations between children and parents should include all relevant family members. This is a part of what we today call networking and it must be taken seriously by the local authorities responsible for assessing children’s needs. From this viewpoint I see extra-familial care much more as a supplement to modern family life than as an alternative, though the latter might be relevant where no family members can be found capable of providing parenting.
The time has come for society to create a more family-friendly policy where the demands of work and family life are reconciled, and where sufficient good institutions are provided, ready to support the modern family with what is needed – from family life education in preschool and school, to family advice, family guidance and therapeutic initiatives!
Too often the treatment of interpersonal problems has only been directed towards the individual. It would have been far more professional to focus on the mutilated interpersonal relations in the family. Relation therapies and work will be important tools in the future for psychologist and care worker.
Some risk factors in modern western family life
- Families’ orientation towards consumption
More money for abundance, more waste, more buying for fun
- Daily media domination
Newspaper, TV, radio, internet, mobile phone, posters, advertising
- Increasing number of women active on the labour market
Two parents working, children in day-care
- Increasing number of grandparents active on the labour market
Reduction in the transmission of culture
- Gender equality
Identity problems: dissolution of sterner sex, gentle sex, fair sex
- Democratising of norms and limits
Less formality, less stability, weaker guidelines
- Less training in habits and rituals
Increased gulf between generations, insecurity and rootlessness
- More egocentric orientation in individuals – less care for others
Look after yourself, see me, hear me, caress me, love me
- Less duties for children in the family = less valuable for the family
Away from home in daytime, fast food, machines, less mending
- More single duties in the family – less togetherness
More alone, more insecure, less guided, less stimulated
- Increased multiple choice in everyday life
More self-responsibility, more confusion, more vacillating
- Fewer physical demands in everyday life – more sitting
More tense, more restless, more aggressive, less concentrated
- Increase in absent parents
Working outside the home
- Increase in exhausted/stressed parents
Double-working, time-regulated, speed- and result-oriented
- Increase in divorces
Less co-working and togetherness, economically independen
- Increase in single parents
More independence, self-determination
- Increase in childlessness or only child
Cause of fertility problems, sexuality, career dictated
- Increase in step parents and step siblings
Caused by divorce rate
- Decrease in multi-generation family life
Society cares for generations separately
- Children dependent on children’s culture
Daily living 8-10 hours in groups of the same age
- Sexualisation of society
Sex-toys, pornography, advertising, accept of multi-sex forms
The modern lifestyle presents family life with a dilemma concerning the securing of a healthy emotional development for all family members. Children, being the most vulnerable in the family, are indeed at risk of developing unstable personalities. Togetherness must be better secured in the future by a more relevant family policy, reconciling work and family life. A far better balance is important between work hours and the family. Future negotiations between employers and workers must be less money focused and give much more attention to family-friendly working hours.
I propose the establishment of ‘Family Life Power Stations’, ‘Family Centres’ to be sited in the neighbourhoods of families in trouble – families in crisis or in pain. In these locally based centres (whether privately or publicly managed), families could ask for support and advice free of charge. From here family work on a preventive pedagogical scale would be offered, as well as on a more therapeutic level. Here there would be multiple options, ranging from telephone guidance to extra-familial care and treatment matched to fit with the needs of each family and each family member.
A healthy family policy securing good enough frameworks for family life is of the greatest importance, and must be seen as one of the most striking challenges to modern societies. But frameworks are not enough, only a necessary condition. As important are the capacities and the personal knowledge and will to utilise the given possibilities within the framework, and skill to fill out the structure with a good enough content. To do this one must possess knowledge concerning conditions for man and family life, and last but not least the will and power to realise this knowledge. In front of us are big demands on modern society in order to give the highest priority to the conditions of family life when the resources of the welfare state are being distributed.
Dr. Steen Mogens Lauge Lasson – Childpsychologist – Mikkelborg Park 25 – DK 2970 Hoersholm