Do Parents Know What Their Children Are Up To And What They Can Do Better?
Parents are Boomers. Kids are Zoomers. With the kicky feeding frenzy that social media, its spin-offs, and peer pools are shaking up today, the mutual trust within la Familia is tottering on the stilts of young adult secrets. Admit it. There was a certain degree of power Boomers wielded in the kid domain when the now-juniors were toddlers. Not anymore. A surreal climate change has been happening through remote learning. With millions of online-spending-time tykes turning Kidults, and sharenting and conscious uncoupling becoming the norm, the relationship between parents and children is oscillating sharply. From warfare narrative to an I-spy commando course to clueless parental presence, it’s all out there. The recent developments in Aryan Khan’s life sharply spotlight the vital question which has been hovering and humming like a background score in everyone’s subconscious: Do parents really know what their kids are doing?
Despite being a single divorcee parent, Delhi-based entrepreneur Shikha Sharma* gave it all to raising her daughter Ananya—the best of education, life experiences, and value systems. She firmly believed that her intelligent always-top-of-the-class kid was different from the wayward children of her friends. Eighteen-year-old Ananya*, to all outward appearances, was the rare teenager with a single-minded focus on studies and getting a seat in an Ivy League college. No distractions for her—no partying (raves, absolutely not) or demanding boyfriends. One day Sharma returned home a day earlier than scheduled from a work trip and walked into her daughter’s room to a shocking sight: Ananya was on a video call with three other girls—all masked and each one naked to the bone—pleasuring herself. Sharma went ballistic when she realized that she had walked in on a virtual act of communal yet anonymous sex. Later, even with counseling, she found it difficult to come to terms with the fact that her understanding of her own child was so incomplete.
Then there is Prithvi Goel*, a young boy who meets girls through dating apps. Since he lived with his parents and grandfather, he would never bring them home. One night, however, when there was no other place to go, he sneaked his date into his room at 1:30 am and he shuffled her out four hours later. When he woke up around lunchtime, feeling rather clever about his escapade, his 87-year-old grandfather smirked, “Did you have fun?” Embarrassed at first, he soon joined his grandfather’s guffaw, realizing that the secrecy had been unnecessary.
“Parents are humans too. In the dynamic world, we live in, we don’t know what we are doing ourselves. Hence, it’s silly to assume that we’d know what our kids are doing all the time. Of course, we like to believe that we do, it gives us a pretext of being a ‘concerned and responsible parent, but the truth is far from it,” says Arouba Kabir, Gurugram-based mental health counselor and founder, Enso Wellness, adding, “The story with young adults is like a thriller with new twists and turns every day —hormonal swings, making new friends and relationships, developing curiosity towards unexplored spheres of life and so on. It is also the time when the sense of ‘being an adult’ sets in their mind, and at this vital point, your relationship with your child is put to the litmus test.”
THE TRAGEDY OF UNBELONGING
Like Ananya, 15-year-old Ankita Dua*, daughter of a bank employee and a schoolteacher, was on track to becoming the head girl of a prominent Mumbai school. She had friends with rich parents but could not afford their lavish lifestyles. When an end-of-year ‘conti-party’ (teen slang for the continuation of the school farewell celebrations) was around the corner, her tony friends bought matching designer dresses, the price tags equal to her father’s salary for three months.
Desperately wishing to keep up with the ‘It’ crowd but too embarrassed to ask her parents, Ankita saw an opportunity when the class teacher absentmindedly left her solitaire engagement ring on the table in the classroom. Unmindful of CCTV cameras, Ankita stole it with the intention of hawking it at a pawn shop her mother went to when money was short. The desperate teen was caught and immediately suspended from school. Worse, she was humiliated in front of her friends with whom she wanted to ‘belong’ by committing the crime. Her middle-class parents, too ashamed to deal with the fallout, quietly packed her off to Indore to live with her grandparents.
There is no class distinction when it comes to teen behavior. In what he jokingly terms the ‘Bareilly Ki Barfi Syndrome’, Feisal Alkazi, theatre personality, educationist, activist, and counselor for 40 years with NGO Sanjivini, observes that when young people land in Delhi from satellite towns like Meerut, Alwar, Bareilly, etc, they get enormous culture shock. Arriving from modest backgrounds, with nose-to-the-grindstone upbringings, they secure seats in the city’s top colleges and move into paying guest accommodations. Here, they begin to interact with city girls and boys whose lifestyle is absolutely alien to them; expensive makeup, big cars, wild parties, and general freedom of thought and action. They start believing they must assimilate to gain the acceptance of this trendy crowd. Soon, they are going to or having parties, and use dating apps like Tinder, Bumble, and Hinge for instant gratification. “A young girl was consulting me for her depression. One morning, she came in and said, ‘Today is a great morning because 12 guys swiped right’. She was thrilled. Many first-time couples who meet online have shared with him that they end up having sex on the first date itself. Such situations make it impossible for such young adults to bridge the gap between where they come from and who they want to be. They start lying to their parents and lose respect for them. They go back home for holidays only to be badgered with traditional concerns like marriage. They’re not ready to settle down after having dozen-odd casual sexual relationships,” shares Alkazi.
BROOKING THE BOND
“Parents are usually extra vigilant with kids up to 10/11 years of age. When children begin to demand more freedom, in the pre-puberty phase, their folks feel they don’t need as much supervision as before. This thin line of distinction between independence and reduced supervision is a tightrope walk, which becomes the decisive factor between knowing and not knowing,” explains Rupa Chaubal, practising psychologist, psychotherapist, and trauma therapist, in Mumbai. “My parents never knew 100 per cent what I was doing, I never told them everything. So how can I expect to be in the know, 100 per cent, about what my kids are doing?” asks Mumbai entrepreneur Veena Rathi. She keeps the lines of communication open 24/7 with her 20-something sons. “My boys confide in me a lot, and yet if I were to assess, the marker would stand at eight on 10 in terms of how plugged in I am about exactly what is happening in their lives. I can’t snoop, which would make them allergic to me. I can’t probe. I can only listen keenly, even to my younger one studying in the US when he calls at odd hours. My older son told me that everyone tries weed at least once, and so has he. Pick and choose times when to react.”
But there is a growing gap in child-parent bonding. Dr Sonal Anand, psychiatrist, Wockhardt Hospital, Mira Road, Mumbai, feels this is because adults are becoming more aware of their own needs and expecting too much from themselves. And the children are more intelligent, developing faster, and exposed to so many new experiences, both virtual and real. Says Anand, “Ideologies are changing and so is progressive thinking, causing a perception lag between generations. The definition of norm, right and wrong, is also changing constantly. Remember, there are different types of parent ideologies: ‘cool parents’, ‘orthodox folks’… But there are also parents who find balance and help children learn the correct way of life while discovering their own journey as well.”
Familial complexities in large Indian families, however, break communications down. Alkazi believes that joint families teem with emotional violence and licentious and sexually predatory behaviour that is largely kept under wraps. “Both joint and nuclear families have their own pressures. In a nuclear setup, both parents are working, and children are raised as latchkey kids. They rely on the help, who in many cases behave inappropriately with the child when the parents are not around. It could be a neighbour. There is no particular norm for what is considered safe for a young person,” Alkazi laments. Shruti Chadha* was diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum around age 10. Already awkward at school, she began to feel increasingly alienated from the rest of her classmates once the terrible teens set in. A penchant for drama and a desire to impress led her to a ‘relationship’ with the neighbourhood dhobi. “I have a boyfriend!” she gleefully told the girls in her class one day, who in their disbelief pestered her for more information. Chadha’s mother was immediately alerted by the school, and the man was duly caught and punished.
THE ANTI-SOCIAL MEDIA
Generation-Z, or Gen-Z, refers to the generation born roughly between the years of 1997 and 2012, following the millennials—kids raised on the internet and social media. According to a survey conducted by Sprout Social, a global social media management platform, 66 per cent of Gen-Zers use social media purely to kill time, making them the only generation to rank that above connecting with family and friends. Explains Nasreen Khan, certified life coach and behavioural skills facilitator with over two decades of experience in counselling, “Children are in a tearing hurry to grow up these days, and I attribute a lot of it to social media which allows kids to compare themselves with their friends and the friends of their friends who they don’t even know! It causes FOMO.”
Many kids are culturally confused. Pink Floyd’s coming-of-age anthem ‘Another Brick In The Wall’, written in 1979, continues to resonate even today. The only change is that the children asserting their independence are now younger than ever before. Alkazi believes that it is because TV and social media have a huge influence on impressionable minds. “Through these platforms, they see how independent Western kids are; they have their own cars and freedoms, and often pay for everything themselves by earning their own money. Our kids are attempting to be ultra-American, but don’t have the tools or money.”
THE ADDICTION SYNDROME
When Mumbai graphic designer Abhinav Singh’s teenage son was picked up by cops from their house for peddling drugs and being in possession of a questionable quantity, he realised he had seen it coming. “He was disengaged from school, losing a radical amount of weight, and was spending a lot, while my wife and I were slogging to pay EMIs and fees for both the kids. No amount of counselling and convincing helped. Sometimes we learn to revise priorities when everything blows up in our face. It is a second life now after his release from jail, and we have to live it well,” he says wryly.
What makes children susceptible to addiction
“Anxiety, depression, irresponsible risk-taking behaviour, social alienation (when they feel their peers dislike them) and emotional avoidance,” explains Chaubal. “Watch out for symptoms like your kids spending long hours in the bathroom, problems with sleeping, unusual body odours, abrupt weight changes, slow responses, uncommon calmness, posting different messages on social media, fights for increased demands to be met, stealing money, gregarious spending, in addition to depression, lethargy.” While counselling a troubled teen, she asked him with who would he bond the most at home. Surprisingly, the answer was a parent with a difficult temperament. She explained to the boy that if he is not accepted the way he is, he must also accept that he must let go of the expectations of being accepted the way he is by this parent. “To resolve the situation, I focussed on him building a better bond with another attachment figure; a second parent figure like an aunt who had raised him as a baby. I worked in tandem to diffuse the core belief in the boy’s mind that he was unloved and worthless, and identified triggers for substance abuse. Both he and his parent were psycho-educated about identifying signs of relapse. Awareness is the key to successful intervention,” says Chaubal. The boy needed medication and is now studying engineering.
THE DIGITAL DEVIANTS
The idea of achieving gratification through strangers is a common theme among Gen-Z today, which is easiest done on the net. A recent survey by the online dating app Tinder highlights that nine in 10 Gen-Z Indians use dating apps to meet new people or stay connected, and 67 per cent believe that meeting new people online is liberating. Counsellor Khan shares the case of a 16-year-old girl. Having recently lost a beloved pet, which had been hard on the teen, she had become close to a man online while sharing her woes. Eventually, she wanted to meet him. Her parents told her that they would like to meet him first. They were glad they insisted— ‘the boy’ was a 40-year-old man. “It is so easy for people to lure youngsters online, particularly when they are feeling sad and vulnerable,” Khan points out. She shares another case of two young girls aged 14 and 15, who were addicted to online chats and ended up making inappropriate video calls with a stranger, who started to blackmail them. They were forced to pander to his unreasonable demands. “There is a lack of understanding and awareness among such young children that breach of privacy is a major problem with terrible consequences,” says Khan. Youngsters watching online pornography is a nightmare parents don’t like to face. Advocate Prabhsahay Kaur, the representative of Bachpan Bachao Andolan and other child rights organisations, says, “I don’t believe children, particularly teenagers, can fully fathom the consequences of their online activity. Bachpan Bachao Andolan has proposed that intermediaries must be held liable for controlling child pornography.”
Entering these troubled waters is a new generation, the youngest members of which haven’t even been born. Imagine that! Generation Alpha are children of millennials and born between the years of 2010 and 2024. Ordinarily, the concerns of the very young may not merit attention, but things changed with the pandemic. These little ones are spending an unprecedented amount of time online and are growing up in digital realms. The parenting of this generation is being increasingly outsourced to digital platforms, as parents struggle to adjust to a post-pandemic world.
COCOONED UNDER ONE ROOF
Clearly, a growing distance is set in between parents and children. Forget the digital disconnect, there is increased emotional disengagement. Says Kabir, “In affluent families, parents think their offspring will become loving if they are pampered with the latest gadgets, while the grown-ups focus on their professional and social lives with gusto. This creates a distance that grows with time and leads to the children and the parents not realising the charm of togetherness and the true meaning of a family.”
Parents-in-progress realise that no one told them bringing up kids was going to be easy. So how do they deal with it, instead of going down the Monday morning sermon route, shrieking their lungs out, whimpering in an emotional assault, or simply zipping ahead with their lives? Says Sheela M Bajaj, life guru and spiritual coach, “During my interactions, I’ve realised that it is not up to the children to understand their parents. Parents should upgrade their belief systems and approach, and think about what their kids are going through. It is almost like upgrading our phones and gadgets to fit newer technology. Parents need to connect, and not make it a big deal when they find out certain things.” She has advice for adults on inter-generational trauma. “If your own parents didn’t give you security and you don’t know what it feels like, then how can you offer it to your own kids? So you cultivate an attitude that ‘if you grew up like this, and things turned out fine for you, hence there is nothing wrong with such parenting.’ This is how trauma passes from one generation to the next.”
It is OK not to OK, once in a while. It humanises you and carries no shame. “Being vulnerable in front of your children helps because then they feel you are more approachable,” says Bajaj. “Build trust slowly. My 18-year-old logs into his Instagram account on one of my extra devices. He knows that I have access to it. I appreciate his trust so much that I will never peek into his account. Knowing that you trust them, gives kids their emotional backbone.”
Telling your children you have their back is the best a parent can do.
(*Names have been changed to protect identities.)
What Parents Can Do
- Communication is the key and the way to make it an everyday occurrence is by eating dinner together with mobile phones and the TV off! If it’s difficult to get the kids talking and sharing, start with sharing your own day, how you felt, the ups and downs.
- Sometimes a film or TV serial deals with a topic you want to address with your children very effectively. Find the time to watch it with them so that you can discuss the content later.
- If there is no other time, use a car ride to bring yourself up to date with your children’s news. There is no exit possible till you reach your destination and often you can converse without uncomfortable eye contact because of where you are sitting in the car.
- Begin conversations with ‘I feel..’ rather than with sentences that sound like you are blaming them such as ‘You do…’
Sinchita V Bhattacharya Consultant Psychologist
- Help children develop interpersonal skills, teach them to connect with family and friends virtually and also learn to appreciate and support each other.
- Take out family time to share your experiences, encourage reading good books and writing a journal, watch a show together or play a board game—engaging children in activities helps them talk.
- Help them explain their emotions and reactions, and also support them to develop a problem-solving approach.
- Practice time away from the news and social media.
Nasreen Khan Counsellor, Life Coach and Behavioural Skills Facilitator
- Make your children aware of the dangers of breach of privacy in their interactions with strangers online.
- Don’t shy away from seeking professional help for yourself or your children if needed.
Prabhsahay Kaur Advocate, Representing Numerous Child Right’s Organisations
- Make a concerted effort to pull them away from sitting in front of a screen to smelling the rain, playing in the mud, chasing butterflies. Nature must be reintroduced into their lives. Playing outdoors is of seminal importance to their physical and mental health as well as social interactions. The feel of a book in one’s hand and the connection with an actual book, to a library, as opposed to a kindle. All this needs to be re-introduced.
- It is crucial to show them how enjoyable our childhood was.