American parents today face a perfect storm of cultural and social circumstances that undermine the very foundations of parental authority. In response, mothers and fathers are beginning to see therapists as irrelevant and to challenge the entire social, educational, and economic context of childrearing.On a day long before the Occupy Wall Street Movement began, I met with a large group of 21st-century child professionals who were on a tear about the multiple inadequacies of today’s mothers and fathers. Sparks of indignation about parents’ inability or refusal to take charge of their kids—to create any kind of appropriate hierarchy in the family—lit up the auditorium. “They’re scared of their own children!” one proclaimed to nods of agreement all around. “If I ever said just one thing to my parents the way they allow their kids to talk to them every single day, I know exactly what would have happened to me!” said another. “They’ve abdicated, handing their children over to us to raise!” yelled a third. The general consensus was that today’s parents had become a “doormat generation” to their own kids, and that they were resisting all efforts by well-meaning professionals to help them grow parental backbones. It was enough to make one’s head spin.
Well, until later. That evening, I met with hundreds of parents from the same community. In a weirdly antiphonal response to what I’d heard earlier in the day, they rocked the school auditorium with their complaints of how hard—no, impossible—it was to be a parent today. School was a bureaucratic, relentlessly demanding, social and academic rat race that wasn’t even preparing their kids for the future. A vast and frightening Internet culture was hijacking their kids, and they were helpless to do much about it. These parents said they were trying so hard to make ends meet that they had little time left over just to be with their kids, much less maintain consistent authority over their lives.
Besides the more familiar complaints, these parents railed against accusations that they weren’t trying to take charge of their own children and teens, even as they admitted just how hard that had become. It was as though the earlier meeting with school administrators and educators had been bugged. In fact, the parents made clear that they wanted to be more effective and engaged, but were blocked not only by social forces, but by the very childrearing system that was supposed to prepare their children for adulthood. More and more, the collective verdict was clear: the conveyor belt of 21st-century childrearing was seizing up, and the academic and therapeutic professionals working with children “just weren’t getting it.”
Not long ago, I might have heard parents talk as if their kids’ problems—drugs, school failure, or acting out—were matters for individual families to resolve, sometimes with the aid of a therapist. Now, I’m seeing mothers and fathers challenge the entire social, educational, professional, and economic context of childrearing—a system, they increasingly believe, that’s made effective parenting almost unachievable.
It’s no accident that since the economic implosion of 2008, following decades of stagnant or declining income across the socioeconomic spectrum (except for the very top), the tone of my conversations with parents has shifted dramatically. Adults were already under siege trying to handle the incomprehensible newness of what seemed to arise each week in kid-universe. That was followed by financial stress, chronic joblessness, underwater mortgages, and college savings raided to cover family living expenses. It’s little wonder I’d begun to register parental impatience and resentment toward child “experts.”
There seems to be another, noneconomic reason for parental dissatisfaction with the current childrearing situation: the tendency on the part of child experts, including too often me, to blame parents for what’s going on. In fact, as I speak with child clinicians and educators across the country, the parent-blame knocks me over. I can’t help but think, How can we help the very parents we seem to hold in such disdain? It seems particularly ironic that, as therapists, we don’t appear to have empathy for parents who are trying to muddle through a perfect storm of interconnected cultural and social circumstances that undermine the foundations of parental self-confidence and integrity, even of family life itself. After all, “post-boomer” parents, a majority born after 1964, are watching the implicit social contract they grew up with—“If you try hard enough, you’ll get ahead”—disappear right before their eyes. Parents across the economic spectrum, the other 99 percent, are the first post–World War II generation to be told that their children will be less prosperous than they are, perhaps much less prosperous.
Our therapeutic gaze often seems to pass right over the broader parent-subverting social and economic forces that shape our therapeutic work, to focus almost exclusively on what individual parents are doing wrong. Of course, therapy is personal. We can’t change the economy or revoke the malignant effects of cyber technology or unilaterally humanize school culture. We can, however, take a hard look at mothers’ and fathers’ view of the world, connect more effectively with them, and—who knows?—even begin to help them negotiate the daunting challenges they’re facing in a childrearing context gone wild.
“How can I get my child to not go to midweek concerts when almost everyone else in the school is going?” “It’s one thing to tell my kids not to drink and drive, but how can I stop them from texting while they’re driving?” “You tell us that we should limit screen time, but how can we when half of the homework in elementary school is online?” “When my preteen son calls me from anywhere on his phone, how can I be certain he’s really where he says he is?”
These are just a few of the questions I increasingly hear from parents and groups across the country. On top of losing faith in a secure future, mothers and fathers deal with everyday dilemmas that make a joke of traditional rules and childrearing practices. Unfortunately, many therapists still seem to believe that reliable solutions to the problems families face can be readily found in our psychodynamic, family, or standard evidence-based protocols. The rampant “medicalization of childhood”—our attempt to assist kids in getting the help they need to grow up in today’s tumultuous world by assigning more and more DSM diagnoses—doesn’t instill parental confidence either. “How many of you are familiar with the following diagnoses?” I ask parents. As recently as five years ago, most had only a vague sense of the acronyms used every day in our work. Now ADD (attention deficit disorder), AD/HD (attention deficit/ hyperactivity disorder), PDD (pervasive developmental disorder), ODD (oppositional defiant disorder), spectrum disorders, Asperger’s, bipolar I & II roll off parents’ lips so easily you’d think you were at grand rounds in a teaching hospital.
By the time kids are 18, at least half of them have already received a psychological diagnosis. While many mothers and fathers have become psychological sleuths, searching their child’s behavior for any sign of disorder, others continue to believe that the only thing wrong with kids is a lack of discipline. All the while, it becomes harder and harder to distinguish between psychological aberrations and the peculiar 21st-century context in which kids are growing up.
Fifteen-year-old Serena can’t settle down at night. Her mind hurtles between anxiety, excitement, and unbridled enthusiasm—you might say she’s rapid-cycling. Along with an inability to tear herself away from her online world, she’s fallen dramatically behind in school. In a reversal of the usual sleep–wake patterns, she’s awake all night, sleeps until early afternoon, and misses entire days. She’s had so many diagnoses it seems inevitable that she’d eventually receive a bipolar II label and several trials of medication. But it’s more complicated than that—she’s also a hypertexter, as many kids with attention and mood vulnerabilities are, and has been the object of intense peer attention, keeping her involved in text interactions that never cease. She can’t stop reacting physically or emotionally to her phone, which she says, “might as well be glued to the inside of my head, it’s so much a part of me.” Is this a true bipolar disorder, an acquired difficulty in affect-regulation triggered by the warp-speed electronic world she inhabits, or both?
Serena’s parents were skeptical about the bipolar diagnosis; it was just the latest tag from a long line of experts who didn’t have a clue about what was troubling their daughter.
They were fed up with the judgmental attitude of clinicians who intimated that Serena’s problems were due to “poor hierarchy” in the family, along with their expectation that she could just be ordered to give up her tech lifelines, cold turkey. Like others who’d had it with the parent-blaming diagnostic merry-go-round so prevalent today, Serena’s father and mother decided to take matters into their own hands. Having had their fill of standard mental-health interventions, they opted to explore alternative approaches to diagnosis and healing—skin and hair analysis, meditation, biofeedback, homeopathy, yoga, cranial-sacral therapy, exercise and diet regimens, organic pharmacology. The combination settled Serena down some and increased her parents’ confidence that they could tolerate guidance from me. Their daughter, whom I never met, began easing into an alternative school program that made more slowly escalating demands. I soon learned to respect her mom and dad’s skepticism about what the school system and therapy-as-usual had to offer.