A Guide to help Youth with Inattentive Parents
Manav and Deepa were both studying in junior college. They met through the tuition classes. Both were sixteen years old when they began dating. Both had been raised in the same town, and both were good students (though Deepa usually earned better grades than Manav). They had so much in common. But not everything.
Manav was the star football player of his high school team and was named to the all-district team. When he won the trophy as the most valuable player for the district championship, he smiled hugely and strode to center court to accept the trophy with a swagger that communicated his sense that he thought he deserved the award- and more. He didn’t scan the faces in the crowd to find his parents because he knew they wouldn’t be there. They never were.
Deepa didn’t understand. She played on the badminton team, and her parents never missed a game. They seldom missed a practice match, in fact. They seemed to take an intense interest in everything she did.
It wasn’t just Manav’s sports events that his parents missed, though. His dad was a businessman who traveled a lot, and his mom was an obstetrician; they were highly respected in the community. But most mornings, Manav left for college without seeing his parents and usually scrounged in the kitchen to make his own dinner. Manav sometimes commented to his teacher that he could probably die, and his parents wouldn’t discover the body until it began to stink up the house.
Problem of Inattentive Parents
Neglect can appear in many forms and at different levels of severity. Most authorities consider neglect to be inattention to the basic needs of a child or young person (that is, shelter, food, clothing, medical care, school attendance, etc)
But the youth suffer a type of neglect that is not so readily recognized, not so easily documented. School and government authorities may not consider Manav’s situation (described above) to be a case of neglect or abuse. However, the kind of inattention he suffers, the apparent lack of interest and involvement on the part of his parents, will take a slow but dramatic toll in a young person’s life.
Many youth leaders and teachers consider disinterest and involvement on the part of parents a major problem for young people. Seventy percent of the national youth leaders and teachers surveyed for this series rated the problem of inattentive parents as “very important,” and 30 percent of the leaders rated the situation of inattentive parents as a “crisis.”
Causes of Inattentive Parenting
Parenting is a difficult job. It is tough enough to juggle the many demands of life without children; many people find giving appropriate attention and care to one or more children- on top of the already considerable responsibilities of marriage and career- a nearly impossible job. Many succeed admirably, nonetheless, but many- for a variety of reasons- do not.
Most experts agree that the most common cause of neglect is poverty. Likewise, poverty is present in many cases in which a child suffers from inattention or apparent unconcern. Many causes related to poverty increase the likelihood of neglect inattention, such as single parent households, multiple siblings, lack of education, and lack of proper role modeling for the development of effective parenting skills. Moreover. there is often a general sense of hopelessness in low-income neighborhoods. And, too, parents often lack the knowledge or the will to provide purposeful parenting. However, low-income parents are not alone in this behavior.
Youth in middle-class and upper-middle-class homes usually have their basic needs of food, shelter, schooling. and clothing met. These children of higher-income households are often neglected in different ways, however; they may be starved for attention. affection and a sense of parents’ interest. Middle-class and Upper-class families often suffer from “locomotive lifestyle” in which parents resemble a speeding locomotive. racing the clock while frantically striving to meet the demands of their career, social life, communities- while their kids end up feeling like the scenery that gets passed by blurred and barely noticed at all.
In today’s fast-paced world, both parents sometimes feel pressure to work full-time jobs, and some youths are left to fend for themselves after school, sometimes well into evening. Such times can leave a young person feeling lonely and, not infrequently, afraid, and can also give opportunity for unwise and unhealthy pursuits.
Divorce and single parenting create great stress on parents. The pain and anger a parent experience from a divorces or separation may overshadow his or her child’s needs to grieve the loss of family. Many times after divorce, one parent is left alone to accomplish the complete responsibility for parenting. At the same time, there may be extra financial burdens, the beginning of a new career, and/or new relationships, all of which distract the parent and make careful attention to the youth seemingly impossible.
Single parenting is an overwhelming task. It is very difficult for a single parent to find the proper balance between his or her needs (which are likely to be acute in the wake of a death or divorce) and the needs of the children. Many single parents are admirably attentive to their children’s need. Too often, however, the young person’s emotional needs- for attention, support, and affection- are neglected.
It is not difficult to see how multiple siblings in a family can make it harder to invest interest and attention in each child. As one of three daughters in the Mehta family, Tara being eldest with sisters who were 7 & 10 years younger to her. never got individual attention from her parents. They were both busy working and trying to keep up with the bills and saving up for daughters’ marriage. Tara’s parents were never available or interested in attending any of her school or sport activities and, in fact, did everything they could to discourage her from pursuing extra-curricular interests, citing the additional financial burden such involvement would cause. Tara felt she was loved best when she was noticed least.
Parental Preoccupation with the Social Ladder
Parents tend to neglect their children if they are preoccupied with anything, especially social advancement. Sakshi’s mom and dad were involved in local politics, several community activities, and both were constantly striving for advancement. Sakshi was left in the care of an aunt, her mom’s twenty-year-old sister. Sakshi’s parents didn’t realize that their daughter and her caretaker were smoking pot (weed) together every afternoon. Since Mon and Dad usually didn’t arrive home until 8 or 9 pm, the physical evidence was carefully hidden, though the emotional results in Sakshi’s life were apparent. . . to anyone who cared to notice.
Schizophrenia, manic depression, postpartum depression, and clinical depression are some of the disorders that might lead to parental inattention. When a parent suffers from one of these disorders and is not being treated appropriately, the disease will sorely inhibit his or her ability to give attention to a child.
Today’s society urges men and women to “have it all” and to “have it your way”; earn a six-figure income, send your kids to private IB/ICSE school, work out every day, vacation abroad- and meanwhile, have a happy family. Parents who buy into this “have it all” mentality will typically neglect their children’s emotional needs, choosing (consciously or unconsciously) to place their “needs” ahead of their children’s needs.
Lack of Parenting Skills
Kids don’t come with parenting manual. Almost all first-time parents admit that nothing could have prepared them for the demands of parenthood. Some (particularly those whose parents modeled healthy parenting styles and skills) struggle, work, and finally succeed at developing skills that not only provide for their children’s physical needs but for their emotional needs as well. Unfortunately, many parents believe that parenting means only providing financially for a family.
Effects of Inattentive Parents
A young person whose parents seem unconcerned or inattentive is likely to experience hurt, frustration, anger (sometimes resulting in bitterness and rage), as well as feelings of insecurity and loneliness. Reactions such as these may prompt many and various effects.
- Low Self -Esteem
When a parent neglects a child (or when a child perceives indifference), the young person may develop a sense of worthlessness. Manav, whose story opened this article, may have appeared overconfident in accepting his most valuable player award, but his behavior probably masked a critically low self-esteem. He compensated for his parents’ indifference to his achievement with a mask of accomplishment and arrogance. (See Unhealthy Self-Esteem – Bijoyful)
- Poor Scholastic Achievement
There is a strong link between parental involvement and academic achievement. When parents are not around, a young person’s grades will mostly suffer.
- Poor Peer Selection
Inattentive parents may be the last to know that their child has chosen the “wrong” group to hang out with. A child who feels that his or her parents are indifferent and uncaring will probably be desperate for acceptance; he or she often finds that acceptance in the wrong ways, with the wrong crowd. (See Peer Pressure – Bijoyful)
- Poor Social Skills
Children begin their first social exploration in the family and build confidence and skills with which to reach out to the rest of the world. When the parents are not available or not interested in the child, the young person’s social development will probably be hindered.
- Inability to Bond with Others
Bonding is essential to human development and growth. When a teen has not bonded with parents through time, personal interaction, and touch, he or she will be retarded in his ability to bond with others, a lack which will show itself in friendships, in marriage, and eventually in relationships with his or her own children.
- Rebellious Behavior
Youth who feel neglected will try to get attention, and they will deem negative attention better than no attention at all. When negative attention achieves the desired results, more negative behavior will follow. A young person may rebel by finding a way (haircut, tattoos, profanity, etc) to embarrass a parent in front of the parent’s friends or collogues, or the youth may become involved in criminal activity.
- Drug and Alcohol Problems
Neglected teens are more likely to succumb to alcohol and drug abuse because they have more unsupervised time. One researcher reports,
Young teens who come home to an empty house are twice as likely as those supervised by adults to use alcohol, weed and cigarettes
- Sexual Acting Out
Teens who feel that their parents are unconcerned or inattentive have both the motivation and (seeking intimacy, attention, etc.) and the opportunity (large amounts of free time and unsupervised activities) to act out their frustrations and to seek fulfillment of their needs through sexual behavior.
Response to the Problem of Inattentive Parents
A teen who is hurting because of parental indifference or inattentiveness is likely to be in desperate need of an adult who will show interest and offer support; such care and concern will never replace the attention the youth desires from Mom and Dad, but it can certainly help, particularly if the adult responds to the youth in the following ways:
Youth who feels neglected by their parents often yearn for someone just to listen to them; they long to feel that some adult cares about them and their well-being. Careful and patient listening can be very constructive for such a young person. Questions such as the following may encourage the young person to talk, provided they are asked sensitively, without pushing:
- When did you first begin to feel this way?
- Have things gotten better or worse?
- Do your siblings feel the same way?
- Have you ever discussed these things with your parents? If not, why not? If so, with what results?
Be sure to listen to the youth’s feelings, as well as his or her words. Listen (without offering judgement one way or the other) in an attempt to discern whether the parents are being inattentive or whether that is the youth’s perception (in either case, the hurt will be real), Listen alertly for any indication of physical neglect or abuse.
Come alongside the young person; step out of your “adult shoes” for moment and try walking in the teen’s tennis shoes. Try to see things from her or his perspective. Don’t jump to conclusions or offer quick and easy “solutions”. Instead, take your time seeing things through the youth’s eyes and feeling things with his or her heart. Strive to communicate empathic concern by:
- Being available to the youth
- Making eye contact
- Learning slightly forward in your chair when he or she is talking
- Nodding to indicate understanding
- Reflecting key statements (“You feel. . .” and “You’re saying. . .”)
- Waiting patiently through periods of silence or tears
“Deep down,” say author Dick Forth, “we all want to believe that we are likeable, worth loving, and valuable to another human being”; a teen whose parent are (or seem to be) unconcerned may have rarely if ever felt that way. One of the deepest needs he or she is likely to have is a need for affirmation; one of the greatest ways a caring adult can help such a teen will be to offer affirmation. Affirmation, say Foth, “is me telling you how I see you in qualitative terms, [not for] what you do, [but for] who you are and what you mean to me. . . How do we affirm another person effectively? Is it words, actions, or time? The answer is all three.”
Sensitively offer the following direction to young persons whose parents are uninvolved or unconcerned:
- Offer hope. Show them how God sees them; show them that He believes in them and in their future.
- Lead them into relationship with the Lord. Gently guide them into a deeper relationship with God who always there and always has time for them.
- Direct them to positive peer groups and a community (such as a thriving youth group) that will not neglect their emotional needs. If they have material needs, direct them to resources that will help in those areas too.
- Get them involved in helping others. Constructive attention can more often be gained through giving than through taking, through serving instead of being served. Encourage youth to help siblings, friends who may also be feeling neglected or unloved.
Enlist the young person himself or herself in brainstorming and planning ways to cope with the neglect or perceived neglect. Should the teen express his or her feelings to Mom and Dad? Should he or she write a letter? Can he or she suggest any concrete ways to approach Mom and Dad and suggest ways both parent and child can adjust to make things better?
Keep in mind that relational problems take time to work out; patience and persistence are called for it. Both the caring adult and the young person should be in the process for the long haul. The youth leader, teacher, worker should make it a priority to involve the parents in these matters as early as possible. The adult should also be alert to the possible necessity and opportunity for referral of the youth and his or her parents to a competent counselor who can provide family counseling.
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Bijo Joseph is the founder of Bijoyful Foundation, a faith-based NGO (reg. 357152/sec. 8 co.) that aims to deliver positive changes in the lives of young people troubled with adverse mental health, addiction or other life challenges through range of strength-based, recovery, livelihood programs and support offered by counsellors, social workers and volunteers. He has youth leadership experience of 17 years and with educational foundation from TISS, Mumbai & IIM Calcutta.