Blights of passage

Today’s teenagers face pressures that their parents probably
never experienced – such as the availability of drugs and the
decline of the nuclear family. So they need more support, says
Young Mind’s Peter Wilson.

What is it that we value and want to promote for future
adulthood? As Adam Phillips has put it: “Increasing technological
expertise and knowledge about human development makes our lives
more comfortable but can also conceal the daunting moral question
about what kind of people we want to be and therefore might want
our children to be.”1 It may well be the case that
today, perhaps more so than in the past, we as adults are in danger
of retreating from our positions of authority in relation to the
young. Confronted by so much bewildering change, and out of fear of
adolescent scrutiny, we may all too readily avoid our
responsibility and instead resort to condemnation and

In the face of this alarm, it is as well to remember that a
great diversity exists within the adolescent population at large.
There are 7.5 million teenagers aged between 10 and 19 living in
the UK and another 3.5 million aged 20 to 24.2 There is
much to suggest that the majority of these young people have no
great problem with growing up, encountering new experiences and
relationships and dealing with the adversities that face them with
curiosity and resolution. Most get along well enough with their

However, a significant proportion do not find life so agreeable.
About one in five have mental health problems – and a smaller but
sizeable number suffer serious mental disorders.4 Many
of these young people are at risk of falling into the ranks of
those variously described as socially isolated or disaffected or as
young offenders.

Adolescents have some important things to do in their business
of growing up. Adjusting to puberty and establishing a sense of
identity are of crucial developmental significance. Much of this
proceeds internally, within a private, personal world, but of
course all the time couched within the family and social context. A
great deal depends on the quantity and quality of support that
young people receive as they find their own way towards some kind
of adult status. Family stability, housing support, employment
opportunities – these are just some of the basic ingredients that
add to the overall nourishment of the growing young.

All the information that we have now about factors that are
likely to put young people at risk of developing mental health
problems or antisocial behaviour (as well as the “protective”
factors)5 underlines the basic fact that all young
people need encouragement and affirmation from a wide range of
people – parents, neighbours, teachers, employers – in their
communities. Those who are vulnerable are those who, by and large,
have not and do not receive this kind of support. Arguably,
however, even the more robust need as much back-up as they can get
in the face of the technological and cultural changes and
challenges they all face. The indications are that psychosocial
problems have increased substantially during the past 40 or 50
years in Western Europe and the US.6

As we know, the structure of family life has undergone
considerable change in recent years. The divorce rate, for example,
increased six-fold during the past 30 years of the 20th century; a
similar increase occurred in the number of births outside marriage.
The result has been major differences in the way an increasing
proportion of families organised themselves – with different kinds
of parenting, re-parenting, step-families, and reconstituted
families. A great deal depends on how well parents communicate with
their children and adolescents about these new arrangements – how
well they inform those that are dependent on them of what’s going
on and how well they hear their views and responses. Too often
children and teenagers are overlooked in the midst of family change
– and the effects of divorce and separation are not on the whole
favourable. A Joseph Rowntree Foundation report,7
reviewing approximately 200 research studies concluded that there
were significant differences between those young people who had
undergone a divorce and those who hadn’t – children of separated
parents having a higher probability, for example, of living in
poverty, being poorer as an adult, having behaviour problems and
performing less well academically.

In practical, everyday terms it is increasingly apparent that
the family’s capacity and willingness to support their adolescents
is of critical importance to their adolescents’ future adult lives.
Many changes have occurred, again in the past 30 years or so, in
the area of young people’s work. Largely due to the dramatic
reduction of the manufacturing industry in the UK, the youth labour
market more or less disappeared in the late 1970s. At that time the
majority of young people went to work after leaving school. There
was a clear pattern to their lives: leaving school, starting work,
establishing an independent income, leaving home and starting a
family. Today, pathways towards adulthood are more complex and
varied. Very few young people now go on to work at the age of 16 or
indeed 18; most now go into vocational training or further
education. There is now a much higher premium on obtaining
qualifications – a greater emphasis in education on testing and
exam success. Young people are now under greater pressure to
perform well and an increasing number of young people are falling
by the wayside without qualifications, without the wherewithal of
skills to obtain jobs or even part-time work. Even for those who
are able to more or less keep up with the pace, the pressing demand
to achieve and to strive harder in a highly competitive and
changing employment market is causing a great deal of stress.

Inevitably, in this context of extended education and precarious
employment, financial pressures are uppermost in most young
people’s minds. Housing too is a major problem. There are no social
security benefits, for example, to aid independent housing for 16
to 18-year-olds. The fact of the matter is that more young people
are financially dependent on their parents for longer. Recent
studies have indicated strongly that families play a pivotal role
in providing accommodation and financial support for their children
in education or training.

Entering the adult world is, at whatever level of socio-economic
experience, an exhilarating yet daunting experience. Experiencing
personal possibilities yet limitations, entering an exciting yet
bewildering realm of virtual communication – none of this is
straightforward. The pervasive impact of the media, the unrelenting
drive of commercialism and the ever-widening availability of drugs
– all of these are broad cultural factors that impinge on today’s
growing minds in a way that it is as yet difficult to measure.

There can be no doubt that as a society, we need to do much more
to support our young through the transition into adulthood. Many
opportunities are now arising for more education and vocational
training, but the question remains; with what financial resource,
with what size of student grant? Independence is generally hailed
as a virtue, but without housing or social benefits, particularly
for the most needy, how is this to be fully achieved? The
government needs to recognise the implications of its education and
employment policies, and in particular extend greater support to
parents and families in providing the assistance their growing
children need. It also needs to invest more in specialist and
primary care services, bridging child and adult mental health
services, to reduce the level of mental health problems among the
young and to help them through the threshold towards adulthood.

1 Young Minds magazine, April

2 Office for National Statistics,
Mid-1999 Population Estimates

3 Youth at Risk, A national survey of
risk factors, protective factors and problem behaviour among young
people in England, Scotland and Wales
, Communities that Care,

4 Office of National Statistics, Mental
Health of Children and Adolescents
, 2000

5 Youth at Risk, A National Survey of
risk factors, protective factors and problem behaviour among young
people in England, Scotland and Wales
, Communities that Care,

6 M Rutter, D Smith, Psychosocial
Disorders in Young People
, John Wiley, 1995

7 The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Divorce
and Separation
, 1998. Peter Wilson is director of Young

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