Addressing Problems at Schools in Context: A Philosophical Statement
Jeremy Fink, LCSW: Thu, Apr 26th 2012
Recently, I have been asked by school administrations to consider the mental health issues faced by our school children and devise a plan to help. The problems that are most abhorrent seem to stem from stunted emotional modulation and emerge as symptoms of childhood delinquency of all sorts: use and abuse of substances, feckless sexual engagement, and harm to self or other. It is my opinion that these problems are becoming more severe, as our culture becomes more self-centered, cynical, and avoidant of emotional issues, resulting in deprivation and isolation. Furthermore, past attempts to mitigate these problems often have resulted in strategies that minimize or stigmatize, which has merely exacerbated them. It is only through a gradual cultural change that we can implement a strategy to rectify these issues.
A core value that seems to be emphasized amongst parents in this part of the developed world implies a need to provide their children with "everything." The desire for parents to uphold this value is derived from a variety of origins: a social norm or expectation, a desire of the parent to provide children with what they themselves didn't have growing up, a belief that this will lead to greater success and opportunity in life. However, I am of the opinion that an attempt to provide everything for a child will deprive them of the ability to develop awareness of self and the capacity to tolerate their emotions. What has become apparent to me, and what I will attempt to illustrate for you, is that these children are only partly being seen, heard, and understood. Children learn about themselves through relationships with others, especially the adults in their lives, and if thwarted in this endeavor the cordoning off of emotional states ensues, forestalling the development of their complete selfhood. In other words, if the adults in their lives don't show genuine interest and curiosity about them, they will lack the ability to reflect or have self-perspective. This problem has become so prevalent that I employ the phrase: the invisible generation, to define today's youth.
Adolescents, as with young children, will pull out all the stops, attempt to disrupt and destroy the system, wear down the structure of the home, school, and if allowed to go so far, society. If the home can withstand all the child's destructive force, the established boundaries will contain the child; however, the child must first test the stability of the home's structure in order to feel secure enough to develop a self. There must be a sturdy familial framework and scaffolding within the home in order for the child to feel safe enough to take the appropriate risks in development. An unsatisfactory family framework may result in anxiety and cause the child to look for such a framework elsewhere. This child may then act out at school or in society, searching for an association or structure sturdy enough to hold and contain them.
We as a society are less tolerable of our children's need to rattle the cage so to speak. We either minimize the issue focusing on the child's success, academic or otherwise, or we stigmatize them, generally using a mental health diagnostic label. When I am called to consult about a child's school behavior I most often hear one of two stances from the school's administration: indifference or zero tolerance, which are two sides of the same coin, equally failing. Neither stance allows the child to feel the sturdy framework necessary for real growth and development, as it sends the message that the child is too much to tolerate.
We are neglecting the youth of today, depriving them of self-knowledge and as a result they are isolated, engaging with their families, one another, and the rest of the world as automatons, with limited emotional capacities. That they are acting-up is the only sign that there is yet hope. It means that they desire to be apprehended, and are holding out that they can know and be known more fully, ascribing greater depth and meaning to their lives. They have everything, yet feel as if they have nothing, and as exhibited by their symptoms they yearn for so much more.
I may now beg the question, what are the essential elements to providing a sturdy enough framework? This varies and is specific to each child; however, as a prerequisite, parents, the educational institution, and community must model a stance of reflection and empathy. A good mental health program is essential; however, just as important is how this program is embraced and adopted into the culture of a school. An effective mental health program cannot be relegated to a hidden office, accessed only when there are problems or perceived need (privacy and confidentiality is often used conveniently to further hide the problems, as we are able to say "out of sight out of mind"). Mental health must be implemented and embraced openly with interest and curiosity rather than stigmatization, in order to provide necessary emotional growth; as Dr. Donald Winnicott stated: that it might grow into the child like the bones of their body, allowing gradual self development. A successful mental health program must be comprehensive. We must stop identifying the children who present with behavioral or emotional symptoms as isolated problems, focusing merely upon these individuals and their families. We must begin to see the problem as a systemic one, within the social context of the school. Isolating the problems and trying to fix them outside of their context is both counterintuitive and probably ineffectual.
Who can fix these issues but us, as a community? And at what time is it more essential to act than now? We must show strength, the ability to tolerate strong emotion, capacity for empathy, and be reflective about our children's needs. We must show a genuine interest and pay attention to these issues; we must not minimize them, allowing children to be invisible, nor will it serve to pathologize and stigmatize them. There is no movie to see, no pill to prescribe, or product to purchase that will address these issues; rather, we must strengthen our own capacities in order to provide our children with a sturdy framework in which to thrive.