Children in turmoil

More young people are suffering mental anguish
with a consequent rise in violent behaviour. And adults are often
at a loss as to what action to take. We need to find an
explanation, says Lisa Harker.

Child-on-child violence leaves an indelible
scar on our collective adult conscience. Images of James Bulger and
Damilola Taylor remind us of our failures as adults to protect
children as victims; but we are haunted equally by the images of
Jon Venables and Robert Thompson and of our failure to prevent
children from becoming criminals. We are forced to question how
those we would wish to be furthest from the influence of malign
forces could commit such terrible crimes against their own

Our reaction must be tempered by the knowledge
that such crimes are – fortunately – extremely rare. But our
response – a combination of horror, guilt, incredulity and anger –
leaves us feeling woefully impotent.

We may look to nature or nurture for
explanations – seeking solace in finding punishments to fit the
crimes or placing blame on the environment in which children are
raised. But neither perspective provides a clear guide as to how we
should take action. Our tough juvenile penal system fails to deter
criminal activity. And seeking less tangible explanations such as
the malign influence of television, growing material envy or some
loss of innocence leaves us without a clear or constructive way

Faced with the fragility of our collective
response we instinctively seek to safeguard children from a growing
list of dangers we perceive face them (from paedophiles and
stranger danger to traffic accidents and mobile phone theft). But
motivated by a need to appease adult anxiety, smothering children
in over-protection can escalate children’s fears.

Children’s own perceptions of crime reflect a
disproportionate concern about their own danger. Nearly half of
young women under 24 report being very worried about being raped
and a third are worried about being mugged. Yet fewer than 10 per
cent of young women are victims of any form of crime.

Our failure to take sufficiently seriously the
increase in mental health problems in children and young people
sufficiently perpetuates our inability to deal with both the causes
and consequences of crimes by and against children.

While we continue to debate the overall
prevalence of mental health problems in young people, there is a
strong consensus that recorded mental health problems are rising in
children and adolescents and have done so for more than 50

An Office of National Statistics survey found
that one in 10 children aged between five and 15 had experienced
clinically defined mental health problems that would “stop children
and adolescents doing the normal things, being able to make
friends, go to school, function productively”. As many as one in
fifty 11 to 15-year-olds have tried to harm or kill themselves.

As ChildLine counsels its one-millionth child,
we are reminded of our increased sensitivity to children’s problems
but simply cannot fail to conclude that the level of mental anguish
in children has reached astonishing heights.

Such problems cannot be solely the concern of
psychologists and psychiatrists, or charities and helplines. All
those who hold responsibilities for children must play a role in
questioning how we might improve children’s lives to prevent such
mental distress.

The roots of mental ill-health are complex but
we ignore the early signs at our peril. The pathways from bullying
to crime, and from being bullied to becoming victim are neither
fixed nor inevitable. But early indications of problems must not go

This month US psychologists claim to have
found an increase in bullying among girls, a new type of
psychological warfare that they term “relational aggression”. Such
girl-on-girl cruelty takes the form of a subtle form of emotional
bullying which is easily overlooked in the context of more obvious
and disruptive male aggression. Some claim that such bullying has
always existed but that it has simply been our awareness and
acknowledgement of its existence among girls that has been lacking.
But whether new or rediscovered, it deserves serious attention.

As the Damilola Taylor murder trial moves to a
close we will instinctively wish for an explanation. But unless we
pay more attention to the mental well-being of children and young
people we are in danger of grasping at straws.  

Lisa Harker is deputy director of the
Institute for Public Policy Research.

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