In a recent talk entitled “Help! I Can’t Understand My Child! Inside Generation Z,” delivered for parents of students at De La Salle Santiago Zobel School, alumnus and master of counselling Charles Patrick S. Gamo explained the behavior and psychology of today’s kids.
Gamo is a psychotherapist and YouTuber who broadcasts vlogs on depression and anxiety for his young audience (Facebook: Psych of Pat; Instagram: psych.of.pat; e-mail: psychof firstname.lastname@example.org).
(Generation Z is defined as today’s young people born between around 1995 and 2005, also known as the iGen.)
After speaking to the Grades 5 to 12 students, Gamo learned that they’re now more exposed to mental illness.
“It’s normal to have suicidal thoughts,” he said. “It’s only when it’s recurrent that it becomes a problem. Sadness is normal. Don’t pathologize such feelings. Instead, acknowledge it and say, ‘You’re having a hard time, let’s help fix that.”
Quoting a United Kingdom psychological research bulletin, Gamo said, “Millennials are experiencing higher levels of anxiety, depression and thoughts of suicide than generations past. They have much higher levels of perfectionism, and such elevated expectations may be to blame.”
Where does mental illness come from? Gamo enumerated the usual reasons, but expressed doubts on their accuracy.
It’s genetic. You’re more likely to have the same disorder if you have a family history of mental illness. Gamo: “Sometimes.”
It’s in your psychology”—the way you think, your resilience. If you have a weak or flimsy belief system, and no God, you are more prone to depression. Gamo: “No, it’s not just that.”
Depression is a social thing now stemming from social media. Does Facebook itself make you sad? Gamo: “It’s not just it.”
Combination of factors
He then argued that the “biopsychosocial model” meant that mental illness is not determined by just one factor, but a combination of all factors above.
For instance, he said that someone with Down Syndrome can be happy. “So, even if you have a genetic difference, you can protect yourself against mental illness,” Gamo said. “There’s much we can do to tweak lifestyle—getting more sun, exercising, eating more nutritious food—before you even see a psychologist. Psychotherapists should be your last line of defense.”
How can millennials, or Gen Y, and Gen Z be perfectionists when they seem self-oriented?
“Because perfectionism can be something they ascribe to themselves,” Gamo said. “It can also be prescribed, so as parents and teachers, what we tell them, they internalize. It can also be other-oriented, with perfectionism projected onto their expectations of other people.
“They live in a high-pressure environment. Back when we were in high school, compared to what our children need to do now, iba na. Ngayon, high school pa lang, nagti-thesis na. We did that in college.
“Do we have higher expectations of our kids? Well, we had an easier time back then because we didn’t have to use tablets, we didn’t have the internet, so expectations of us were lower then.”
What drives depression, anxiety and other related conditions?
“Neo-liberal meritocracy is a strong need for young people to strive, perform and achieve in modern life,” Gamo said. “The younger generation is responding by reporting increasingly unrealistic educational and professional expectations of themselves. What am I doing with my life? They’re more aware of it. It’s not that they’re imposing it; it’s subconscious.”
He added that today’s young people are competing with each other to meet societal pressures to succeed, to feel safe, socially connected and of worth.
“People in general have a need to affirm their self-worth. But when your child was born, you immediately thought they were amazing. No judgment or expectation has yet been ascribed to the baby.
“When we drop money and it gets dirty, we know its value doesn’t change. So why do we treat people differently? Everybody has inherent worth.”
Social media projects perfect bodies and rom-com relationships. Subconsciously, Gamo said it makes our children think about their own body issues, insecurities and social isolation.
Are social media and technology at fault? “No, they are not inherently bad,” Gamo said. “We should just treat all of it as information.”
There have been reports that preteens using smartphones more frequently have trouble focusing, and that symptoms and effects of disorders like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) worsen. “There are benefits to technology, such as for behavior monitoring, remote therapy, and keeping medical records over the cloud. It’s how we use it, and how we let our children use it.”
He mentioned how today’s students are required to have tablets for school: “We give kids gadgets, and already, as we give it to them, we expect them to use it as if they were adults. We should know how to wean ourselves off our phones.”
But the sad norm these days is seeing families or friends out together, but all scrolling through their phones.
“It’s worse for our kids because we give them access to a whole new dimension without actual restrictions,” Gamo explained. “Kids are becoming sexualized at an earlier age because they have unfiltered access to the Internet.”
But Gamo advised parents to give children alternatives, and not just outright ban gadgets: “For instance, spend two hours on the gadget, then spend the rest of the time with us. You need to live offline, too.”
For parents who are just as hooked on their phones, making reality more interesting than the virtual world can be challenging, but it’s definitely doable and worth it.
Gamo said that Gen Z’s so-called digital natives thrive on acronyms:
DIY (do it yourself). Practically everything now can be learned online. As parents or teachers, we must act like the children’s consultants, not their supervisors, so as not to disempower them.
GPA (grade point average). We need to put grades into perspective and distinguish learning from marks. Instead, ask what they have learned. What has been useful? You can engage them more in this way.
FYI (for your information). We need to help our children filter information, between what is worthwhile vs not-so-worthwhile. Back when we had to do research, we had to go to a library. Kids today just use scholar.google.com or have access to a lot of garbage.
We need to be consultative in saying what to filter. What do you want to learn about? How about this site instead of that one?
FOMO (fear of missing out) and FOLO (fear of living offline). You miss out more by obsessing over what you’re missing out on. Be the parent who can tell your kids to “be in the now.” Don’t let them miss out on you.
OJT (on the job training). Let them do it! Practical trumps theoretical knowledge. Don’t worry too much about them being in a safe career track. They will find a way to make money out of their passions.
OMG (oh my gosh). Ground them in truth. Teach them the difference between truth and emotions. Kids are exaggerated these days, saying “OMG, this is so stressful, just kill me now!”
Let them be expressive appropriately, but also help them realize what they are saying: “Really? You wanna die over this?” You have your talk points to go over with them.
“Spend time with your kids,” Gamo said. “Take them out, sure, but be present. Faces shouldn’t be glued to phones. Interact with your kids. You’re setting them up for failure if they’re not learning to interact with people physically. We still live in a physical world: we shake hands, we hug. They need this practice. Don’t let them live just online.”
During the Q&A, when asked what an optimum amount of time online a day is, Gamo advised: “Ninety minutes is a safe amount for kids to be online. If they spend over five hours, they will have a higher risk of developing depression. This is not a direct correlation, but it does play a part. There are mental health consequences. Blue light emission is also bad for the eyes—it kills cells in our optic nerves, making us eventually blind.”
He also recommended parents to foster an environment for children to open up: “Be relatable. ‘Even if you think I can’t, I want to understand you’ should be promoted and felt at home. Spend time with your children, if not 10 minutes a night, at least an hour on the weekend if that’s more doable. Make them feel supported and encouraged. Enable them to develop a mind.
“Help them manage their time doing worthwhile things. ‘What do you need to do? How much time can we spend on each?’ Be supportive, and don’t increase the tension and stress for them during crunch time, like exam week.
What if your child opens up about his or her friend’s suicidal tendencies, but you’re not allowed to talk to the friend’s parents?
“Help your child detach to avoid getting compassion fatigue,” Gamo said. “Say something like, ‘I understand your friend is having a problem, but you’re okay, you have me.’ Enable your child to learn to help your friend without getting directly involved. Help erase the stigma associated with poor mental health by making them open to speaking with professionals in school (note that minors need parental consent for help outside the campus).
If you are a parent struggling with a severe anxiety disorder, for instance, what would be the best way to deal with a child going through the same issues?
Gamo said, “It would be up to the parent to demystify taboos like mental health, to communicate that ‘It’s okay to be not okay.’ There’s help. As parents, we don’t have to be completely resilient all the time. Be truthful: ‘You can learn to manage it, just like I’m learning to manage it.’
“Be careful about transference of anxiety. Get help for yourself and learn how to manage your own issues. Teach your child how to manage theirs. After all, parents are still the best teachers for their kids.” –CONTRIBUTED