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Let children cry

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Better to be good at feelings than to feel good

Our society is intolerant and disrespectful of young people’s distress. We seem to dislike it when young people are angry, ashamed, frightened, sad or disappointed. There is strong encouragement to consider such distress as being a precursor of disease,1 so that parents, doctors and teachers are prone to label and intervene rather than sit with ordinary, healthy, but distressing feelings.

Distressed children are already inclined to numb themselves, whether with drugs, porn or screen time. Prescribing medication to lessen mental pain potentially adds to this numbing,2 creating a reduced state in which children are not fully themselves, and are less able to get on with the task of growing up.

We would do better to trust children’s capacity to survive and benefit from strong uncomfortable feelings; be more respectful of the time and space that is required to do so; and tolerate and manage the anxiety we experience through not intervening.

This less interventionist approach presents a substantial challenge because the distress that young people experience is a big deal. Adolescent suffering should not be dismissed as just adolescent turmoil; this turmoil can lead to a kind of madness. But it is most often an ordinary madness that requires support and containment, not diagnosis…