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Muaz Shabandri and Dhanusha Gokulan / 5 May 2014
Teenagers running away from home, or in some extreme cases, committing suicide, is a rising concern in the UAE. With both parents working to make ends meet, and no extended family to take care of them, teenagers often feel neglected. Khaleej Times explores some of the issues affecting teenagers.
When 15-year-old Ali left home on a weekday, both his parents were at work. He decided he would not return because, in his opinion, “it was not worth it”. There was too much work pressure at school, and he had enough of his parents’ constant “bickering”. Besides, they were hardly at home. His friends wouldn’t understand and there was no one he could confide in.
In short, his life was “hell”. The best option, he felt, was to run away from it all.
He came back home on his own after a few days.
Though statistics show only a part of the full picture, youngsters leaving home is a rising concern in the UAE since it could be a harbinger of something serious, including youngsters contemplating suicides, say experts.
With the exam pressure round the corner this May and June, the issue should sound alarm bells for parents and schools.
In Sharjah alone, in 2013 and in the first five months of 2014, at least 10 complaints for missing youngsters were lodged with the police — all boys. These boys left home, and were either found within 48 hours with the help of the police or returned on their own.
Two troubled teenagers committed suicide earlier this year: A teenaged girl who jumped from a high-rise after being scolded by her father and a 16-year-old boy, who hanged himself apparently due to exam stress. Another 19-year-old attempted suicide last week but survived.
Exam season stress?
Dr Padma Raju Varrey, head of department, Psychiatry, at NMC Specialty Hospital, Abu Dhabi says: “The number of teenage psychiatric/psychological consultations rises and becomes something (of) an epidemic during the exam season.
“It is a very stressful period for them,” says Dr Varrey who has been practicing psychiatry for 16 years.
“As a hospital, we work on different age groups. Teenagers however, from my observation, have a tendency for seasonal consultations.”
He, however, adds that the psychological disposition varies from child to child. “It is not only school stress that affects the child, but it can be children belonging to a dysfunctional family. In majority of families in the UAE, both parents are working and they have no support from extended family like grandparents, due to which they are not able to share their problems.”
Other reasons could be peer pressure, children coming from conservative families being exposed to a modern lifestyle, and bullying. Dr Varrey says that majority of the hospital’s teenaged psychiatric patients are expatriates.
So is it true that today’s teenagers take stress head on? This is a question that warrants a lot of debate, says Dr Elizabeth Kurian, psychiatrist, Aster Medical Centre, Sharjah. “Being able to take stress depends on one’s temperament; coping skills and life experiences ... Some messages that children hear from adults like ‘You have to be the best’ make them grow up with the belief that if they are not in the top category, they are good for nothing.
“Children are not taught how to face failure gracefully and to accept ups and downs in life.”
Incompetent parenting and problems at home like divorce, separation or drug abuse by a parent are to be blamed in some instances, says Dr Kurian.
“The child might feel their parents don’t care about them. Sometimes children are unable to express themselves. Running away may be a method of escaping punishments and consequences.”
The adolescent time period is associated with intense psychological changes and hence they are prone to psychological problems.
Dr Varrey adds: “In most severe cases like suicides, parents are ignorant and several of the accidents that occur are ones that could’ve been prevented.”
“Definite signs do exist, like for example, if a usually active, social child suddenly turns moody and reserved, then parents can try and probe into what is wrong with the child.”
Overexpectations and peer pressure
According to Dr Kurian, in many families, parameters of success are concentrated heavily on academics.
“Children are under the impression that if they don’t do well in academics, their life is hopeless. Some parents and teachers fail to recognise other talents in the child. Children are appreciated only if they excel in studies,” she says.
“Children yearn for love and attention. They try to do their best but when it is not appreciated, they equate it to their parents or teachers not loving them as they are failures,” adds Dr Kurian.
“The goals in life projected to children are materialistic goals like a high-income job, a top end car and a luxurious life. ‘I want all things better than my peers’ is a common feeling. Religion-based principles and spiritual goals no longer seem relevant.
“It is a well-known fact that an optimal level of stress is motivating and helps one to stay alert.”
Aamnah Husain, a parenting expert, recently shared the reasons behind child-related stress at a talk hosted in Oasis Centre by Fun City. “There is an intense focus on the future, which ultimately leads to stress in children. Constantly having a future orientation can cause depression, anxiety and stress.
“Children themselves don’t know what bothers them sometimes.”
A lack of interest from some parents to help their children overcome anxiety makes matters worse. “Life is really busy now. Some of the parents just want to put their kids in a class, switch on the television or give them an iPad. Extreme focus on academics also pressurises kids.”
School counseling – does it help?
After homes, schools should be a point where symptoms of a troubled teens can be recognised. But is that widely applicable in the UAE?
Marian Rossiter, head of secondary school at Raha International School in Abu Dhabim, says, “Students sometimes use the counsellor as a bridge between the school and their family.
“We have several layers of support and all students have an advisory teacher whom they see every morning. They are the first ones to usually notice any difference in a student’s behaviour.”
Students who undergo stress are advised to speak and share their anxiousness with someone they trust. It is one of the most effective ways of lowering anxiousness.
“If you are stressed, you need to speak to somebody. The more stressed you become, the more ineffective your body becomes in dealing with it. The first step for a student to get help is to talk to somebody about it.
“Sometimes parental expectations are very high which puts students under a huge amount of pressure. This requires the school to work with the parents and talk to them about their expectations.”
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