Loving and losing our children

New Zealand’s appalling youth suicide rate is in the news again, as is our impotency in the face of it.

A new UNICEF report has found New Zealand’s youth suicide rate – teenagers between 15 and 19 – to be the highest of a long list of 41 OECD and EU countries.

The usual culprits have been rolled out via various media channels: child poverty, family violence, bullying, teen pregnancy, cultural dislocation, and that particular (and peculiar) Kiwi “She’ll be right” attitude, where “good buggers” stoically “get hard” and get on with it, and where asking for help still has some lingering stigma attached to it.

This is not something we can fix with policies and parental control switches and family dinners and TV panel discussions. The government can throw money at it all they want, but that still won’t fix it.

Because my personal belief is that, notwithstanding the complex and varied contributing factors mentioned above, this is a systemic issue in a society ruled by technology and high on success and progress and achievement at all costs.

Where our young people are connected to thousands of sites and people across the globe but increasingly disconnected from themselves and the people around them. Where they are learning that you express interest in someone by swiping and just as quickly delete or ghost them if you can’t be bothered anymore, or if their photo is taken from the wrong angle, or if someone better looking is the next card in the deck. Where young men learn about sexual intimacy and women’s bodies and sexual response and consent from increasingly violent porn. Where young women are bombarded by pictures of perfectly airbrushed bodies, viewing others’ lives through filters and lenses and lies and strategic omissions. Where the perfection they witness online is artifice and impossible to attain, but they still break their hearts and bodies trying.

Where we hear “Be the best you can be!”, “Excel!”, “Don’t settle for second best!”, “Aim for the stars!” day in, day out. Where young people are not free to simply be average at some things, and to know that it’s OK. Where they’re not taught just to embrace sadness when you feel it, to be lonely and scared and disappointed and to know that you can survive all those things (and in fact be strengthened by them), and where the full gamut of human emotion is reduced to 280-character tweets and Insta-worthy inspirational quotes framed by photoshopped sunsets and rainbows.

And here’s the scary thing: I think we’re starting to realise that we’ve got it wrong. I think some of us are finally comprehending that the cost of instant access and ease and plastic perfection and mail-order intimacy and communication without depth and honesty and vulnerability is just too high—but none of us know how to fix it.

I am scared for my 12-year-old daughter. I am scared that she will not find deep love with someone who respects and loves her for who she is. Scared that her sensitive heart is vulnerable to the immense pressure placed on all our precious children. Scared that I already see streaks of perfectionism and whispers of anxiety in her.

What can we do?

Here’s what I try to do. Talk and talk and talk with my daughter about the internet: its undeniable usefulness, but also its danger. Monitor ALL her online activity, even the innocent chats with school friends on the school chat app. She hates me doing this and I don’t care.

Talk about the images we see: What is real? What is not? What really matters? What do we place value on? Why?

Teach her about the difference between real life and artifice. Teach her that you can only have meaningful interactions if you are brave enough to show someone who you really are, and willing to take the time to see others as they are.

Tell her it’s OK not to be brilliant at everything. Good marks and prizes and podiums are great and all, but empathy, kindness, and simply relaxing and letting go are even better. Being a bit shit at something can be fun. (I have a lot of experience in this.) It makes us human.

I tell her that perfect people are difficult to love. Think about the people you love the most, I say. What is it that you love? It’s not the perfect marks and achievements and body and family and career choice. It’s the quirks; the imperfections; those kinks and blemishes that mark a person as human and real.

Most of all: I resolve to be there. To help her to feel her emotions, talk about them, know that they’re normal. To teach her about resilience. Help her to be brave. Have her back. To teach her about handling difficult emotions. To tell her it’s OK to just be her, as she is. To love her, love her, love her.

There’s nothing more I can do, and I pray that it’s enough.

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