Teenagers… stop medicalising this phenomenon!

Having a teenager in the house, you often get asked ‘what is that like!?’ The inference is that having a teenager is somehow a medical phenomenon. But when does this labelling stop? In today’s world, we are continually medicalising normal experiences like common childhood anxieties and tensions. Children’s behaviour and mental health are hot topics. ‘Naughty’ children are more likely to be diagnosed with behavioural disorders and quiet, insecure children are at risk of being thought of as depressed. This is not only by lay people but professionals also.

Hannah Ebelthite, a freelance health, fitness and wellbeing writer, wrote in the Telegraph ‘should we be medicalising childhood?’. She worryingly noted that ‘far fewer cases were seen in children born in September, the oldest in their school year, than in those born in August, with figures rising steadily between the two. Study authors put this down to teachers wrongly comparing the behaviour of the youngest children to their older classmates – confusing immaturity with ADHD.’

In my clinical experience, when parents are advised that there is a range of normality in terms of behaviour, then this reduces anxieties and they can deal with it accordingly. I view teenager and toddler experiences very much like I view the menopause, a natural phenomenon of life. My eldest son was exactly the same when he was 12 years and 355 days old to the day he turned 13.

The NHS website even has an article ‘coping with your teenager’. Excerpt from this ‘surges of hormones, combined with body changes, struggling to find an identity, pressures from friends and a developing sense of independence, mean the teenage years are a confusing time for your child. It can mean that they, for example, become aloof, want more time alone or with friends, feel misunderstood, reject your attempts to talk or show affection, or appear sullen and moody.’ Gosh that would put the fear of death into any parent!

How about a positive spin like ‘your child will begin to understand relationships and responsibility, your child will show signs of being organised, your child will want to try new things, you will start to find time for yourself as your child begins to develop independence’.

With the breakdown of the extended family, parents have fewer people to turn to when seeking advice on parenthood. Now google or their local medical practitioner are increasingly being utilised. However often what new mums need is just to speak to an experienced mother. There are cases of course, when a medical opinion is needed, and genuine cases of ADHD and other disorders need specialist intervention. However there are often occurrences which need family intervention rather than a medical intervention.

By medicalising normal emotional turmoil in childrens’ lives they will perceive it as a traumatic event. Teenagers may lash out and parents just brush it off as ‘phase’ or ‘that’s being a teenager’. However this attitude won’t help them. It is a period in their lives where they are going through changes; physically, emotionally, psychologically, physiologically as well as societal pressures such as peer pressure and social media exposure.

It is the time for reassurance, providing them with an environment they feel safe and not being judged, where they can ask questions and help deal with all the changes. Instead parents make the mistake of stepping back. What children (and parents) need are not diagnoses but guidance, a shoulder to cry on and understanding.