Tony Bates: Do not write off young people

Just as they have reached a point of being ready to be set free from home, many young people are being forced to go back home

An image from Twitter showing large numbers of students gathering in Galway on Monday night. Photograph: Cllr Eddie Hoare via Twitter account

An image from Twitter showing large numbers of students gathering in Galway on Monday night. Photograph: Cllr Eddie Hoare via Twitter account

 

I spoke to a young man recently who works as a cashier in our local supermarket. He was bright and personable. We got into a surprisingly open conversation as he scanned my purchases. I asked if he had started in college, and he said ‘No’. What was happening this year was not his idea of what 3rd level education should be, so he had bowed out in favour of part-time work. ‘After that’?, I enquired. “I’ve no idea, we’ll just have to wait and see”. I sensed a hint of frustration as he breathed out and reached for my loyalty card.

Covid-19 research on the impact this pandemic is having on our collective mental health, consistently highlights young adults - those in the 18-24 year age group - as the segment of the population who are having the hardest time. And yet, when we hear reports of these same young people’s behaviour in recent days, there is a striking lack of sympathy for them. They are more likely to be vilified for the recklessness of some who openly flaunt public health advice.

Do I agree with them holding antisocial raves in our cities? Probably not. Would I hold them to account for the unintended consequences of what they are doing? Yes. But do I see them as ‘bad’ or ‘selfish’ for doing what they do? Absolutely not.

It’s hard for most of us to remember what it was like to be an adolescent. As we struggled to figure out who we were, how to fit in and what we should do with our ‘wild and precious’ life, as the poet Mary Oliver wrote. One thing became clear to us: regardless of how good or bad our parents were, we needed to cut loose from home to figure out our identity.

The ideal environment for the mental & emotional development of the young child is the family. Covid-19 confined children at home during lockdown, but for most of them, this was not a huge loss. For an adolescent, however, the consequence of being isolated at home runs counter to everything they are meant to be doing at this stage of their lives.

The context for healthy adolescent development - their appropriate ‘environment of embeddedness’ as Jerome Kegan calls it- is the peer group. Relationships with peers are critical. Reactions of others are the lens through which they form an image of what they like and don’t like in themselves. It’s where they ‘try on’ and test out different personalities to discover who they are.

Taking risks is a vital part of learning what works and what doesn’t work for them. They are prone to risk-taking being at a stage of development where control (pre-frontal cortex) and emotion (amygdala) centres are not yet fully integrated. When their passions run high and their amygdala’s becomes heated, self-regulation is not at its best.

Just as they have reached a point of being ready to be set free from home, many young people are being forced to go back home. No matter how caring a place this may be, it can feel like a prison. It lacks the warmth and close contact with peers which for this age group is oxygen.

They find it frustrating to be cut off from the opportunities they need to thrive. Covid-19 has stolen many of their milestones. The Debs, live music, a summer job in the USA, and sports events. Graduation ceremonies are not happening. It has also robbed them of opportunities to interact socially, opportunities to lose oneself in celebration and cement friendships. It shouldn’t surprise us that their frustration spills over at times into less-than-ideal behaviour.

What they need most from us is to know that we hear them and recognise that they have landed into a new world for which nobody has a map.

We may not approve their raucous celebrations that flaunt public health guidelines and seem indifferent to the fears of the wider community. But maybe our challenge to young people to desist from certain activities needs to start by recognising what the pandemic has taken from their lives. For too many of them there is an empty space where their sense of identity was just beginning to take root.

Tony Bates is Adjunct Professor of Psychology UCD

NUIG is hosting an on-line series of presentations next week (Oct 5-9) on the experience of young people and their mental health at this time. A one-hour session will be offered daily from 1-2 PM and access is free. All are welcome.

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