They've got it all... except mom and dad
Kids from wealthy families are increasingly ending up in psychological care due to a lack of parental attention
They've got it all: comfortable homes, parents with successful jobs, all the home technology available on the market, designer clothes, spending money... all except one essential thing. Urban adolescents from middle and upper-middle class households are starting to flock to psychologists and social pediatricians, suffering from loneliness.
These kids have practically grown up on their own, raised by people from outside of the family, because their parents, occupied full-time with maintaining their social status, don't have the time for it. The consequences are usually perverse: behavioral problems, aggression, constant confrontations with their parents, and also a worrisome tendency toward isolation. So much so, in fact, that some adolescents are starting to be put in the at-risk category, and are being temporarily sent to supervised flats run by the government.
"A mother came to me demanding anti-anxiety pills for her son"
Some professionals call the lack of interest "dereliction of paternal duty"
"They day they haven't got time to attend therapy and we believe them"
This is unusual, because until now, centers like this - with a capacity of around half-a-dozen young people, supervised by psychologists and social workers - were set up exclusively for kids from broken homes. Their parents were either in prison or without the means to get by; unemployed people without a future and drug addicts in the broadest sense of the term, most of them alcoholics. Now, however, they're starting to share rooms with rich kids who no one ever imagined would end up under the protection of the regional social services. But the two groups have one thing in common: neglect.
Some parents delegate the problem to the administration; others continue to opt for boarding school, depending on whether they belong to the lower- or upper-middle-class tiers. According to the experts, both forms of removing the conflictive young person from the home are more and more common, and it is happening at earlier ages.
What do these antisocial behaviors reflect? Are adolescents trying to get revenge against their parents for practically abandoning them? Or is a way of protecting themselves from the helplessness typical of the most confused years of existence? Do these difficult, solitary kids ever recover socially?
"The victim is always the minor," says Blanca Betes, the head of Psiceduca, a Madrid clinic specializing in adolescent disorders. "They're difficult situations that can be treated with a strong guarantee of success if they haven't reached adolescence yet. After that, it's harder. The longer the situation is put off, the harder it is to fix. It requires extensive therapies, which are sometimes very expensive, and also take time. The first part isn't a problem; we almost always have well-to-do families come in. The hard part is the time. They do a lot of traveling and are very busy. They say they can't do it and we believe them, because they lead such a fast-paced life that it's hard to slow down."
But the price of putting it off is high. The minor gets even more stuck in a spiral of conflict and despair. The parents feel defeated, and develop a sense of self-pity for having such a child.
The mother is usually the first to seek professional help. Even though both parents work, she is the one who finds the time to seek expert advice. The initial complaint usually follows the same pattern, according to Blanca Betes: "My kid is hopeless. He doesn't go to class; he fails everything. He's aggressive, insults us and even hits us. It's a living hell." The parents always blame the children. They feel they are the victims of injustice: they've given them everything, and only get trouble in return. But as the therapy progresses, feelings of guilt surface. In the end, they admit that yes, they have given them everything... except their time.
With over a decade of experience, Blanca Betes has learned to translate the language of adolescents. "Go to hell," when directed at their parents, means "I'm really lonely. You don't love me. You don't take care of me. Make me a part of your lives."
"Much to my dismay," adds the director of Psiceduca, "sometimes kids are willing to change if their parents are also willing to do so. But the fact that the adults don't have the time ruins everything. A recent patient of mine ended up getting sent to an elite boarding school in Switzerland, because his parents couldn't make it to therapy."
Sending the child away from the family, whether it be to a supervised flat or to boarding school, puts the emotional bond between parents and children in serious danger, according to the experts. "The minor perceives boarding school as 'not only have you abandoned me, you're also pushing me out of your life.' The typical reaction is to withdraw even further into their group of friends, with the tendency to insult and be aggressive with their family.
Some professionals call this lack of interest "dereliction of paternal duty," which is cause for taking custody away from the parents. In Spain, there are 35,000 children supervised by the various governments, although how many of them are due to dereliction of paternal duty is unclear. Arturo Canalda, the minor's ombudsmen in the Madrid region, points to the main reason for the lack of reliable statistics: "Each region has its own way of describing abandonment. What some call neglect, others call risk and vice-versa. No region has the obligation to supply or specify these data, so we work somewhat in the dark, trusting our instinct and experience."
The social pediatrician from Madrid's Niño Jesús children's hospital, Jesús García, warned the senators who drafted the future reform of the national adoption law that "a sociopathic parent is not only a parent who abandons, abuses or sexually molests his or her children, but one who also neglects his or her paternal duty." According to García, negligence is the second cause of abuse in the Madrid region. What's more, de facto abandonment leads to "serious emotional disorders."
This pediatrician, who is also the head of the Madrid Association for the Prevention of Child Abuse, goes on to explain: "A mother, a very successful professional, came in to my office demanding anti-anxiety medication for her son, because he sent 1,000 text messages a day. That's right, 1,000. I went to her house and his room looked like the bridge of the Enterprise : home cinema, MP3 players, iPhone, Wii, games consoles... you name it. Yet he was one of the most vulnerable kids I've ever seen. His disorders were a desperate cry for attention from his parents, who he practically never saw." After long and difficult therapy sessions, they started to sort the case out. The kid is also recovering what the pediatricians now call "MP3 deafness," which damages hearing capacity, and "metacarpophalangeal arthritis" in his right hand from sending so many text messages.
Another couple that recently passed through his department at Niño Jesús couldn't fix the problem and ended up losing custody for dereliction of paternal duty. They were two vegan executives whose son had serious encephalopathy due to a lack of vitamin B12 and folic acid, "with very serious mental retardation."
He, and other minors who have gone through the same thing under the protection of the Madrid regional government, suffer from "hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy," which makes them dependant for life. "Sometimes, a child's biggest problem is his or her parents," says this pediatrician, who is trying to debunk the theory that emerged in the 1960s (and is still applied in certain circles) that says it's best to spend "quality time" with your kids; in other words, limited time with "satisfied" parents is better than "quantity time" - lots of hours, but with mothers who are supposedly bitter about having to work in the home. "Neither quality nor quantity," says Dr García. "Kids need time, period."
In this context, aren't parents like this being stigmatized by pointing an accusatory finger at them? Doesn't this situation stir up the uncomfortable feeling that being successful professionally means neglecting your family? Or is it the other way around: if your kids are perfectly cared for, it's impossible to get a raise, especially in the case of women. Do the stereotypes still hold?
"It's important to find a balance. But in today's world, that's not easy," says Jesús Poveda, a psychiatrist from Madrid's Autónoma University and a specialist in adolescent pathologies. "[Parents] are both culprits and victims. Raising their children is their responsibility, but if they don't know how to do it or can't do it any better, conflict is guaranteed." Many of these parents are victims of the upbringing that they themselves received, and reproduce models that are hard to digest for children of the digital era.
"It used to be easier for adolescents to get what we psychiatrists call the 'belonging factor' through their extended family and neighborhood friends. But today they rarely have that, and since the real world is hostile to them, they seek to belong in the virtual world. We see that they've got 500 friends on Tuenti and not a single one in their neighborhood. That won't do."
According to this psychiatrist, parents need help distinguishing between what is necessary and what is urgent. "When a serious alarm bell goes off - for example, the minor tries to commit suicide - they rush to change their work schedule or try to find another job that will allow them to be with their kids in the afternoon. They've seen the writing on the wall."
Jesús Palacios, a professor of evolutionary psychology and education at the University of Seville, doesn't blame or exonerate anyone. He simply says that "there is an upward curve of upper-middle-class parents whose jobs are so demanding that they haven't given their children the attention they need. When this is added to the problems of adolescence, they've already lost control of the family situation." In such circumstances, first they try to get educators and psychologists to fix the problem. "They themselves end up asking the administration to take charge of their kids," says Palacios.
Judge Emilio Calatayud, who presides over a juvenile court in Granada, says: "The profile of the adolescent who attacks his parents or commits crimes over the internet or cellphone is from a wealthy social class, who has had everything, materially speaking, and has grown up alone, without any authority figure to set limits."
This judge has become popular for passing sentences that put the minor in his victim's shoes. If a kid threw rocks at the windows of his high school, he'd have to clean them for a few months; if he attacked a weaker classmate, he would be forced to live with disabled people; if he had driven drunk, he'd have to help quadriplegics. With such sentences, Calatayud has managed to rehabilitate a number of minors, but now he feels somewhat overwhelmed by kids who are aggressive with their family and repeat cybercriminals. These young people are temporarily separated from their parents and sent to supervised apartments. At the same time, he prompts the parents into getting their priorities straight and putting their kids before professional success: "We can't do any more than that."
Our adolescents are changing the way they relate to each other. They used to be very sociable, and spent all their time outside. Now they prefer to be at home... they're much better off alone in their room. For company, they've already got their computer or cellphone with an internet connection.
They've found a new friend, a virtual one, which allows them to go anywhere, anytime. The more they use their computer, the more they want to keep on using it. It's a Catch-22 situation, with a very difficult solution. In the end, we find ourselves with kids whose behavior has changed, who are extremely addicted to technology and whom it is impossible to help because they are usually home alone. They're totally hooked, and their dependence gets worse each day.
Both these digital addictions as well as other anomalous elements of behavior that occur in adolescence derive, to a large extent, from the solitude that young people experience in their homes. Their parents are extremely busy; they get home very late and don't feel like spending time with their kids to find out how their day went at school. All they want is to have dinner and turn on the TV or their laptop. Because many parents, with the excuse that they have to work because the company would go under, are also addicted; always glued to their laptop, cellphone or whatever; it's all the same. Kids, being kids, tend to imitate much of their parents' behavior, and this, of course, is one of the things they imitate most.
The situation is even worse in the case of only children, who do as they please around the house all day long, without an older sibling to keep an eye on them or a younger sibling to look after.
The solution is not to take away the blessed device, or prohibit them from using it. We've got to try and teach them responsibility; to know when they can and cannot use the computer. They need to learn that homework comes before play; and to understand that no matter how well they do in school and how diligent they are about doing their homework, they can't stay chatting on Tuenti or another social network until 2am, because they've got school the next day. Sure, it's difficult. Tell me about it... I've got six kids and it takes blood, sweat and tears to get them to do it! And I'm not always successful.