Toxic Society or Wicked Teenager?
I was at the museum, looking at the painting “Bar at the Folies Bergere”. It wasn’t Manet’s commitment to realism or his clever intentional play on perspective technique that forced me to sit in front of the picture for hours, but the sense of identification with the barmaid, witnessing the social backdrop and how, in order to survive, sometimes you need to protect yourself by withdrawing from what is happening in front of you.
Later, I was having a drink with my friend and she was saying how she found it embarrassing and depressing to think that her own mother stayed in an unhappy marriage only because of financial security. She suspected her mother married her father for money and status.
How about those teenagers who find out the real reason their mothers married men who could easily be their father or grandfathers? How about young adults who find their father dating someone younger than themselves? How about those who discover that they were not wanted but conceived by accident during the “sales pitch” period, to close the deal? It is easy for us to laugh about this common scenario, there is nothing new about women married men for financial security but a hard reality for a teenager to discover and accept.
Hong Kong is ever changing, but three iconic trades have remained the same, only growing more mature, diversified and decadent over the past two decades. As many know, H.K. was founded as the Sassoon Drug Center, a gateway to distribute opium to other port cities, and some of the founders of our beloved HSBC were opium traders who recognised the lucrative nature of funding the trade. Where there are drugs, money and sex will follow.
The drug and sex trades have since evolved and are so integrated as part of our life that we normalize the deviance. You can now buy different drugs outside 7-11 in some areas as well as a girlfriend of any nationality of your choice seven days a week, 24 hours a day. Once it might have been a disgrace to say that you met the mother of your child in a bar, but now it is so common that most just roll their eyes. But what about the innocent by-product of this illusion of love? How do those children feel when they start going clubbing themselves, purchasing drugs as if they were buying a soda and witnessing those so-called “love at first sight” moments?
"As both a salesperson and a commodity—something to be purchased along with a drink.” (Lanier, 2004)
Teenagers might not have the maturity but their relatively concrete thinking helps them to judge what is right or wrong – most of the time – better than adults, unless they have joined in the adult candy store or Disneyland for adults, as many call Hong Kong.
In my work I feel heartbroken and helpless seeing some youngsters growing up, ashamed and angry at their own parents. I am aware that my view is skewed and that I hardly see children from well-functioning family. Children as young as 7 compare their parents to other parents. If your mother comes to parenting evening in pants that have “hot babe” written on them, you know your mum is different and you know you will get teased.
As Dr. Steve Piantadosi and Dr. Celeste Kidd from Rochester University suggest, maybe one of the reasons for human cleverness compared with animals is the self-reinforcing feedback loop – helpless baby requires brighter parents to nurture and provide the right amount of stimuli to boost intelligence, consistently. Child development is a slow process. If the parents' main purpose in having children is to secure marriage or financial security, instead of wanting and loving children, they are less likely to have the energy to engage in this slow but much-needed nurturing feedback loop to promote healthy development. The father of one of my patients complained that his teenage son lacked any interest in any politics or history. When asked further, it appeared the father's love of politics and history developed through years of breakfast and dinner family talk that the son never experiences because they never have a meal together at home. Each takes his meal to eat in his room in front of the television or computer. The cultural and educational differences are challenging for most mixed marriages, and that is something not many consider before starting a family together. Instead of blaming the other parent, maybe one can try his best to ensure the child is getting what he holds dear?
Children should be able to worship their parents, and most have parents who are able to love them unconditionally and make them feel that they are wanted. But how would children feel if they knew that the reason they are here was to force or secure a marriage or for financial reasons?
In my clinical experience, I know of four likely outcomes for some of these teenagers that are born into this toxic environment:
Suicide (attempted or completed) or self-harm
Violence toward parents or matricide
One of the major tasks for teenagers is the process of individualization, establishing their own identity separate from their parents. Most are allowed to have a healthy separation and process of individualization. Some of the patient I had, if one of the parent could see the malfunctioning parenting dynamic and able to move the teenager to a nurturing environment, boarding school or therapeutic institution where the teenager can learn to accept the situation and take a break from the often toxic environment, and to learn about routine, boundaries and life skills, the teenager is more likely able to develop a healthier sense of self.
After all, the blind can’t lead the blind. Children need breathing space and to break away from the cage of chaos and toxicity. But, some might lack the insight and the ability to let go of the financial security that goes with being the parent (child support or being in the marriage) is often too high a price to pay – until you do pay, eventually.
Another option for most teenagers is to run away from a toxic home and find their own ways to support themselves.
Anger turned inwards
“When I look in the mirror, I try not to see you.” Garber (2016)
I know of a teenage girl who committed suicide. At her funeral four mutual friends found out they had been sharing the mother of this child as their kept woman for over a year, without knowing of the others' arrangement. It was a shock to those guys. They felt guilty that they had wives or were in serious relationships and had to keep the affair secret and support the woman financially. But the girl obviously knew of the four and other lovers, as the mother had been taking those men home, and knew that those were the guys who had been supporting their comfortable lifestyle and had money to send home. I cannot imagine how I would be able to cope if I was in the girl’s position. What would be my options and should I tell my biological father, who made it clear that he would be financially responsible for my existence only because he legally has to? Or should I tell one of these so-called lovers? I need my mother to survive, but as a 16-year-old, how can I not judge my own mother? Where do I turn my shame and anger, that I can’t even share with anyone?
“The adultified or parentified child, for example, knows how to fit in among adults and may even crave the opportunity, but she can’t sleep at night because the information she gets from her mom is more than she can manage.” (Garber, 2016: 121)
How do I get rid of those horrible feelings inside of me? I can cut myself to release some of the pain and to feel real but the only way to end the intense pain is …
I have seen high-risk cases in which one of the parents refuses residential treatment that was needed yesterday because it would mean taking away a substantial amount of child support. It reminds me of the wise king story in the Bible, how to test whether someone really loves the child. Unfortunately, I don’t have the wise king to deliver judgment to save those teenagers. All I can do is share with you, the reader, and pray that the other parent can take on the onus to rescue my patient.
“Experience declares that man is the only animal which devours his own kind.” Thomas Jefferson
Learning from experience
I have known of teenage girls who know of manipulative or exploitive behaviour too well, learning such behaviour from a parent. Some teenagers are like Thomas' (1987) description of a “7-year-old who has a criminal mind and has the street savvy of a 16-year-old.” I know of a young lady having four different boyfriends at the same time. They could be her father's age. Since they only visit once a month or so, things seem to be working really well and they lavish her with gifts and fancy dinners. But the girl has tested HIV positive. The dilemma – how should she tell them?
“Like any lens, personality can become very distorted” (Garber, 2016: 126)
I also know a group of young girls who targeted teenage boys on Facebook. The girls befriended boys, asked them out and before you know it, they started making out. But, of course, since this was their first time, they wanted to video their time together. Since the girl was the one holding the phone, she could only video the boy, and before the romance could bear any fruit, the boy’s parents got a glimpse of their son’s playful moments without clothes and a price tag so that the video wouldn't be uploaded on YouTube.
I often tell my teenage male patients, if it seems too good to be true, it is going to hurt you. And many of them are shocked to hear how some girls can be manipulative. I am a woman – I know. Most women are born with those capacities, it just depends whether we want to use them for our advantage. We all seek love and attention, that is what makes us human. All we can do as helping professionals and parents is to help the vulnerable youth become aware of the danger and to recognize the sign of a sales pitch.
Violence toward parents ….matricide
I sometime have teenagers come and tell me that they are aware that they are cared not for altruistically, but so that their parents can be seen as caring, concerned and thus secure their positions. All I can do is to help them accept the situations and the harsh reality they are born into. I feel heartache and helplessness, I cannot imagine how they feel inside.
Some of the parents' behaviours and attitudes are similar to what is described as self-absorbed. (Brown, 2008: 22):
Making a big deal out of perceived personal sacrifices
Never empathic but able to seem very sympathetic
Using soothing behaviour to keep you from experiencing your own feelings
There is a difference between a proud mother and a talent manager, and most teenagers are judgmental and quick at separating authentic and spurious claims of love. How would you feel if your mother acted more like a talent manager, dressing and grooming you, advertising your achievements and presenting you as a trophy?
“Materialistic parents tend to have materialistic children, and yet it is this very materialism which may eventually produce a murderous conflict between parent and child, if the parent is seen as getting in the way of the child's acquisitiveness.” (Dr Raj Persaud, Maudsley Hospital, London)
The other response to being so ashamed and angry at your own parent is wanting to get rid of the source of shame. Matricide is relatively rare, but as Persaud suggests, if children are brought up in a materialistic environment, they see parents as a source of frustration when not delivering the material wanted. A child wanting a toy at 5 is very different from a teenager wanting a sports car, but if he has never had to experience the frustration of being told "no," the first rejection can hurt and the reaction often is blown out of proportion.
If a teenager does not see any consequences to hitting his or her own parent the first time, there will always be a second time.
“Once violence starts, it generally doesn’t stop” (Magid and McKelvey (1987):308
Teenagers are impulsive by nature, and something minor can really push a teenager to the point of no return. Isn’t it our job as parents to teach our children not to use violence before it becomes a habitual response to frustration? If we do not teach our children that breaking doors and hitting or kicking are not acceptable, can we blame the teenager when he turns to a knife? Robert Coombes is lucky to be given a second chance after seventeen years at Broadmoor and a new life in Australia- would you child be as lucky?
One of the challenges to working with this at-risk group is that most of these teenagers have never felt unconditional love, and it is too scary for them to form attachments to someone who might become a mother figure, to someone they can look forward to meeting regularly. What if I abandon them just like their parents? If their parents can’t love them unconditionally, how could a stranger care about them?
However, the bigger challenge of working with these high-risk teenagers is that they are too fragile, their practical needs are too urgent and once parents feel the children have revealed too many dark family secrets, they do everything to sabotage the therapeutic relationship, like imposing unrealistic expectations and prioritizing other needs, such as tutoring. Thus it is hard for the teenager to absorb any lasting benefits.
The shocking trend we see is just the tip of the iceberg, with Tinder babies becoming the next new trend. I feel like Lucy, the five cents Psychoanalyst from Peanuts, and am ducking the thorny questions can’t see how we can beat this decadent trend. After all, Hong Kong is a society built upon the toxic triangle of easy money, drugs and sex. There is a chance that children and teenagers without conscience are escalating, but can we blame them? Perhaps the best we can do is to protect our children, warn them to be mindful of scams, remind them that it is not their job to bring their friends back from the brink, or they run the risk of becoming one of them or falling victim themselves. We can only pray for the able parents or relatives of those teenagers in a toxic environment to rescue them and lead them to a healthier environment that promotes growth and develops a sense of morals and ability to form healthy attachments.
I was once asked by a 6-year-old patient to adopt her. I really wanted to but I could not, due to ethical issues. Three years later, I found out from my previous supervisor that the child had become a sexual offender. We failed her as we didn’t remove her from her abusive family soon enough. It is a cliché to say that she repeated what was done to her, she was a victim and that society is paying the price. I failed her. I wish I had tried harder and adopted her. I failed to give her the chance she deserved and that will always be the biggest regret of my life. I am pleading with those parents who can still make a difference to give your child a chance, give them a stable environment that you would like to have as a child. You can’t rewrite history or change the other parent, but you can change yourself and take up the onus of parenting and re-engage with your children before it is too late.
Lora Lee is a registered child Psychologist and parenting counsellor working in private practice in Hong Kong.
Thomas, G. (1987, January 8) Experts sound alarm about rise in crimes committed by kids. Rocky Mountain News, p. 8
Dr. Ken Magid and Carole A. McKelvey, High Risk: Children Without a Conscience, 1987.
Benjamin D. Garber, Ph.D. Holding Tight-Letting Go: Raising Healthy Kids in Anxious Times, 2016
Dr Raj Persaud, Deep mysteries of family cruelty: Unloved or spoilt brats: who can understand children who kill their parents? Independent, (August 10 1994)
Doris Lanier, Absinthe, the Cocaine of the Nineteenth Century: A History of the Hallucinogenic Drug and Its Effect on Artists and Writers in Europe and the United States, McFarland, 2004, pp. 102–103. ISBN 0786419679