Why Can’t Johnny Adapt?

Among the major challenges we face, as a society, is the widespread lack of resilience of many young people. Resilience is the capacity to overcome adversity, to let go of what doesn’t work, to adapt and to mature. Growing evidence of its absence among the young is as ominous for our future as the threat of climate change or financial crisis.

A disturbing measure is the increasing number of children diagnosed with mental-health conditions characterized by rigid and self-harming attitudes and behaviours, such as bipolar disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, eating disorders and “conduct” disorders. Hundreds of thousands of American children under 12 are being prescribed heavy-duty antipsychotic medications to control behaviours deemed unacceptable and unmanageable.

Canadian statistics are less dire but typically follow that trend. University of British Columbia psychologists have warned that today’s children between 6 and 12 “will be the first generation to have poorer health status as adults than their parents, if measures are not taken now to address their developmental needs.” Their report was presented in Winnipeg at last week’s National Dialogue on Resilience in Youth. The conference itself was a marker of the alarm among those concerned with the well-being of youth – educators, business people, people in government.

Beyond mental pathology, many young people exhibit difficulties adapting, as indicated by burgeoning drug use, aggression, bullying and violence. These tendencies all manifest alienation and frustration – that is, an inability to deal creatively and powerfully with life’s inevitable setbacks. The less resilient we are, the more prone we become to addictions and aggressive behaviours, including self-harm. We also become more attached to objects. A young Ottawa man was recently killed when he refused to surrender his iPod to a knife-wielding assailant. “I’d rather be stabbed than give up my iPod,” a 17-year-old woman told The Globe.

Resilience begins with the capacity to sustain disappointment, to feel sadness, to accept the futility of wishing that we can ultimately control the course of events. It means adapting to circumstances we cannot change. Resilience is a natural human capacity; we could not have evolved without it. What is blocking that innate quality in so many?

For the flowering of resilience, the young must have nurturing and stability. At greatest risk are children who live in poverty – more than a million in Canada. They are at risk not because their parents do not love them, but because poor parents are often too stressed to provide an emotionally secure environment. Even to children in higher income groups, emotional security is becoming less and less available. With the loss of the “attachment village” – the clan, the community, the cohesive neighbourhood, the extended family – children are left more and more to themselves. They are diverted from human relationships by video screens, computers, television sets, handheld devices.

All too often, their primary relationships are with other children, who are incapable of offering the unconditional loving and acceptance that best fosters resilience. The result is an epidemic of defensive emotional shutdown. Accepting loss, understanding that things aren’t working and facing futility require openness to vulnerability. Rigid behaviours, the ethic of “cool,” drugs and aggression are all ways by which adolescents unwittingly seek to escape vulnerability.

To stay emotionally open and resilient, young people must feel connected to adults. To redeem their future, we must restore their emotional security. Supporting stable relationships with caring adults from birth through adolescence, in the home, in the schools, and throughout our entire society, must become an urgent national priority.

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