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Talk to your child

There was seemingly nothing much in common between the parents of a young Delhi student who stole his neighbour’s car to make some quick money and those of a teenager who became pregnant. Or between the guardians of a Delhi schoolboy who was arrested during the World Cup finals for allegedly running a betting racket, and those of a preteen who committed suicide in Mumbai.

But the one thread that linked them together was almost like a noose — the parents had no idea what their children were up to.

Psychiatrists warn of a great disconnect between India’s Gen Next and their parents. The generation gap, they fear, is now an abyss. From cell phones and sexuality to religion and etiquette, children and parents see the world differently, creating a chasm that can sometime be fatal.

Sayoni Chatterjee, an 11-year-old student of Mumbai’s Holy Family School, was a victim of this gap. Last month, her mother told the police that she’d gone to Sayoni’s school to complain to the principal after she read Sayoni’s personal diary and learnt about her friendship with a boy in her class. She returned home to find that her daughter had committed suicide.

“This is more than a generation gap. A huge disconnect is happening between parents and children,” stresses Rajat Mitra, director of the Delhi-based mental health non governmental organisation (NGO) Swanchetan.

According to a study published in the US in 2009, eight in 10 people believe there is a major difference in the points of view of younger and older people. The study by Pew Research Center reported that about 74 per cent agreed on generational conflicts as compared to 60 per cent in 1979.

A similar study conducted last year by the Mumbai-based International Institute for Population Sciences (IIPS) highlighted the growing generation gap in India. The survey — conducted among 51,000 youngsters across six states — found that only seven per cent boys and four per cent girls in the age group of 15 to 24 years discussed “growing up” issues with their fathers. Mothers were equally at sea with their sons — only six per cent boys discussed “life” with them.

“The survey found that school performance — which is a non-sensitive topic — was the most common subject of conversation between parents and children. Emotional issues such as romance, relationships and reproduction were rarely discussed,” says Usha Ram, associate professor, department of public health and morality studies, IIPS, who was a part of the team that conducted the study.

Parents were no longer cited as confidants by children — only two per cent said they discussed emotional and sexual anxieties with their parents. “Most children reported that they lacked a desire to talk to their parents,” she says.

Of course, generation gaps are as old as the hills. But experts warn that the situation is worse than ever before — with the gap widening because of factors such as technology, pressure at work and school, and growing hostilities between parents.

“A couple of decades ago, there existed a parent-child disconnect on somewhat macro-level issues — career choices, inter-caste marriage, etc,” says Uttama, editor and founder of South Asian Parent, an online parenting magazine based out of London. “Now the Internet makes it easier for parents to learn about what’s happening in their children’s lives. But then it also means that the conflicts now have become a bit more involved,” she says.

The gap is expanding to include younger and younger children. “Even eight-year-olds are having communication problems. They would rather be left alone with their iPods, plasma screens and Internet than have dinner with their parents,” says Jitender Nagpal, senior consultant psychiatrist, Institute of Child Development and Adolescent Health Centre, Moolchand Medicity, Delhi.

Parents, psychiatrist Mitra stresses, seldom know what their children are up to. For instance, the parents of a 15-year-old schoolgirl, who called Mitra for help when she found that she was pregnant, knew nothing about their daughter’s condition. But what surprised him was the girl’s primary fear — it was not the unwanted baby as much as the dread that her carefully constructed image at home would go for a toss.

“She said her parents thought she was a studious girl who stayed away from boys. She feared a backlash from her father if he learnt the truth,” recalls Mitra. Finally, an aunt accompanied the schoolgirl for an abortion in November last year.

Nitin Sharma (name changed) would vouch for the widening gap. The 14-year-old Mumbai boy has two accounts on a social networking site — an innocuous one for his parents, and the other for his friends. “The goody-goody profile is for my parents who suddenly felt they needed to be friends with me on Facebook. The other one which my parents are unaware of is the real me,” says Nitin, who shares only 30-odd minutes with his parents at dinner time.

Both parties, Mitra rues, have almost stopped talking to each other. The psychiatrist finds “huge gaps” between parents and adolescents in at least 80 per cent of the cases he comes across. “Children are over-scheduled and parents are busy. As a result, families are disengaging with each other.”

Rajesh Pillai saw the disconnect first-hand when he was called to counsel Class XII students of a school in Allepey, Kerala, two years ago. A suicide pact in the school had prompted the authorities to send for Pillai, director, Maithri Suicide Counselling Centre, Kochi. “Three girls had been found dead in their classroom. The police found that their boyfriends had taken pictures of them in intimate positions and were blackmailing them,” he recalls. Like Mitra, what surprised Pillai was that the girls’ parents had no clue about the turmoil in their children’s lives.

For parents, ignorance about their children often becomes bliss. “They believe their wards are doing no wrong. So when any untoward incident happens, it drops like a bombshell on them,” Harish Shetty, psychiatrist at the Dr LH Hiranandani Hospital, Mumbai.

Shetty says that in the last five years, he has seen a 500 per cent increase in the number of cases where parents and children have no communication or emotional bond. “This makes children feel fear, insecurity and anger as they have nowhere to draw emotional strength from,” he elaborates.

A recent study conducted by a Mumbai-based mental health NGO, Maitri, found that parental pressure and expectations were two common reasons that pushed children to take their lives. “We interviewed 1,000 schoolteachers across Mumbai. Of these, 20 per cent said that parental pressure was one of the main reasons for student suicide,” says Shetty, a member of the NGO. The other issues of parent-child conflict in an adolescent’s life range from time spent on the Internet, choice of clothes and friends and even matters of religion and sexuality.

Increasing husband-wife conflict is also leaving its impact on parent-child relationships, says Pia Bedi, child counselling therapist, Centre for Child and Adolescent Wellbeing, Delhi. “Children are increasingly seeing their parents locked in verbal and physical battles. This leads to a loss of trust in parents and increases insecurities,” explains Bedi.

In a society in flux, problems clearly come in different forms. “Kids are now tiny adults and parents are now behaving as youngsters. Both are vying for the same things in life,” says A.J. Wadkar, professor of psychology, University of Pune. “Kids perceive parents as their competitors,” adds Wadkar, who presented a paper on test anxiety and parenting style in 2007.

The crumbling family structure is doing its bit too. When television channel UTV Bindaas made the parent-child divide the subject of its reality show Big Switch last November, creative director Indrajit Ray was surprised at how deep the problem ran. “In most instances, there was a complete breakdown of communication in the family. In one case, a father and son had not spoken for five years,” says Ray.

Authoritative parenting, permissive parenting and helicopter parenting — where worried parents hover over their kids — can all add to the gap. “Nuclear families with a single kid and stay-at-home mothers are the worst sufferers,” feels Geetanjali Kumar, a school counsellor from Delhi. “Since the mothers have left their jobs for rearing their children, they can get too involved in their kids’ lives, leading to suffocation in the relationship.”

As the generation disconnect deepens, support groups are being started to bridge the divide. Two years ago, Pune-based NGO Creative Foundation started a group to help parents and children reach out to each other. In Kochi, Maithri conducts outreach programmes for parents and children in schools and residential colonies.

“It’s time a parent became a parent rather than try to be a friend or a stern instructor,” advises counsellor Kumar. But then nobody is listening. After all, that’s the genesis of the generation gap.

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