Category: midlife

Parenting in midlife: Understanding Teenage Suicide

Parenting in midlife: Understanding teenage suicide.

“I will kill myself and blame it on you,” said one upset teenager to another. The other responded, “You wait and see, I will kill myself before that and blame it on you.” She then actually carried out the threat. This conversation is not from a soap opera on television. A parent’s worst nightmare – this is a true incident that happened between two school friends in rural India. And the girls were not on Blue Whale or any such app.

Luckily, medical professionals were able to save the girl’s life. But the school authorities asked her to stop coming to school. They did not want to deal with liability issues. The same school had lost a male student to suicide in the previous year. The rumour was that the boy had consumed pesticide because he was infatuated with a girl and there were some problems because of that. The same boy had lost his young male cousin to suicide a few years earlier. The reason for that suicide was apparently the same – love life issues. Infatuations and love affairs are highly disapproved of in rural Indian society. None of these kids showed any signs of clinical depression.

But this is not a scary scenario that only rural parents deal with. Over the past year, coincidentally, I worked with two 16 year old girls – both of whom had attempted suicide. One has a history of cutting, while the other has attempted suicide before. For both, the recent episode was triggered by a fight with other kids in school. The girls belong to families that are on opposite ends of the socio-economic spectrum. One studies at a well known, high end, private boarding school. The other studies at a rural, government school. Both seem to have concerned, caring parents. And both seem to have a decent relationship with their parents.

For parents of teenagers, this brings up many questions. Why do some teenagers play these life and death games? How does the thought of killing themselves as a way of proving a point, making a statement, or scoring one on the other, enter their minds? Teenagers have their entire lives ahead of them, why then do some feel that they have nothing to live for? Or, why do they believe that their current situation will never change and their problems will never be solved?

Parents often wish to think of childhood and youth as a care-free time. By the time their children are in their teenage years, most parents have hit midlife. In midlife, it is often difficult for parents to remember what their own teenage years were like. In addition, midlife typically brings its own specific stresses and strains. In the midst of dealing with their own midlife issues, most middle aged parents tend to look back at their own teenage years with nostalgia. But the fact is that teenage years are not an easy time for most young people. They go through as much anxiety and stress as adults do, albeit of a different kind. And they often deal with these stresses without the needed coping skills and support systems. Some facts to consider are:

Intense emotions
Parents often complain about their teenaged children blowing hot and cold, emotionally. The reason for their confusing behaviour is that teenagers experience their emotions more strongly than adults do. Hormonal fluctuations and a still developing brain are most often blamed for this phenomenon. Whatever be the exact reasons, most teenagers feel happiness with as great an intensity as sadness, disappointment, anger, and so on. As a parent it is important to understand that young people often get so deeply immersed in their feelings that it is difficult for them to take perspective. At such times, it is difficult for them to believe that there can be an end to their anger or sorrow.

Impulse control issues
Everyone – parents, schools, and teenagers, themselves – expects teenagers to behave very maturely. But the fact is that while they may have achieved their full height, their brain still has catching up to do. One of the biggest challenges for teenagers is learning to control their impulses. This challenge often infuriates and frustrates parents. Research has shown that young people usually know what is good for them and what is not. However, when faced with tempting but harmful choices, such as, drug/alcohol use or premature sexual behaviour, they are unable to make the right decision. So, knowledge and information often falls short in keeping them safe.

Inadequate coping ability
We, as parents, spend years figuring our what is the best way to cope with situations and build relationships that we can lean on in times of trouble. Despite that, we get into trouble – often relying on excess food and/or alcohol to help us feel better, even in midlife. Adolescents are just starting out on this journey of figuring out how to cope with the myriad situations that life can throw one’s way. They obviously have a long way to go. A lot of young people do not have role models or parents/other adults who can model healthy behaviours. More importantly, many young people do not have the kind of relationship with one or more adults that they need to be able to seek out or accept the adult’s help. This leaves them to their own devices, especially when they are confused about how to handle situations, stressed or in trouble. If they are able to find their path, they are lucky. If not, they are lost.

Negative peer influences
Like young birds learning to fly, teenagers have to make their tentative leaps at independent decision making. During this time they often rely on others of their age for guidance and support. One’s friends can, therefore, be a very big source of influence and determine whether one choses to act in ways that are harmful or beneficial for oneself. The good thing is that nature has made us all developmentally unequal – we learn to walk, talk and become capable of mature decisions at different ages. While we all catch up and eventually learn to walk – this inequality means that an immature 16 year old may become friends with a more emotionally mature 16 year old and learn from them. However, the reverse also happens or a bunch of equally immature kids become friends, leading themselves and each other into trouble.

Thinking in extremes and catastrophizing
While the teenage years are romanticized, they are often the most anxiety driven years of a person’s life. The rat race starts young. Teenagers experience pressure from parents, school, friends and themselves. They experience performance pressures, social pressures and the overwhelming belief that it has to all work out now, or never. Thinking is in black and white and all mistakes, shortcomings, flaws, failures, including failed romances, are catastrophized. Doom and gloom is predicted whether one loses a percentage point or gets a pimple on one’s face. Many young people believe that if they do not get a specific percentage in the board exams or do not get admitted to a specific college, they are doomed. If they are not clear about their career goals right now and have not charted an educational path right now, they will be career-less.

Instead of helping them moderate this tendency to think in extremes, most parents and teachers reinforce it. For example, parents often hold the mistaken belief that scaring teenagers with dire consequences will motivate them to study harder. In addition, teenagers go through peer pressure to conform. To be considered “popular” or worthy of being admitted to a group ruled by “popular” kids, makes many a teenager’s life miserable. No wonder then that this pressure cooker like atmosphere makes it difficult for some to live.

Societal contribution
The idea of suicide often comes from external sources. For most kids, unfortunately, the sources are many. These include apps/games like the blue whale app, reading or hearing about suicides through the media, and having a family member, classmate or known person commit suicide. Children who grow up in rural areas in India are often surrounded by stories of suicides committed by grown-ups known to them. The reasons reported may include shame, financial difficulties, loss of any kind, failed love relationship, etc. A young girl recently told me that whenever her parents get into an argument with each other, one or the other threatens to kill himself/herself. If we, as adults, portray suicide as a way of dealing with various situations, it is no surprise then that young people also resort to thinking about, threatening, or attempting suicide as a way of dealing with their problems.

Not just depression
These days, most people, including the media, seem to think that all people who commit suicide are depressed. It is a fact that people diagnosed with psychiatric disorders, such as, moderate to severe clinical depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia are vulnerable to suicide. However, all people who commit suicide do not meet the criteria for a mental illness. Often, teenagers carry out suicidal acts on an impulse when under severe emotional stress. Such kids feel extreme emotional pain and just want to stop feeling the way they do at the moment. If they survive the suicide attempt they often state that they did not actually want to kill themselves. They only wanted to put an end to their emotional distress.

Physical, sexual or emotional abuse can place a young person under great emotional stress. But even if a teenager was saved from traumatic experiences, the reasons given above may place some teenagers in an emotionally vulnerable state. A state or point in time when suicide seems to be the only option available. Because it is nearly impossible to guess or predict someone else’s state of mind, even if it is your own child, parents need to think of prevention.

Watch out for the next blog post on teenage suicide prevention.

Binge Drinking in Midlife

“He didn’t show up for any of the meetings yesterday or today. I saw him at the beginning of the party day before and he seemed fine. He has not called in sick or returned any of our calls.” This is not the beginning of a murder mystery. This is a conversation about a middle aged binge drinker.

Social drinking has caught on in India. Friday night is synonymous with ‘getting drunk’ for many young, urban Indians. As the years go by, some people who binge drank in their youth may change their ways. Others, unfortunately, continue binge drinking into midlife. A 2009 multi-country study (GENACIS) reported as much. The study confirmed what we all know: Men in India drink much more and drink often compared to women. But the study also found that middle aged binge drinkers in India include both men and women. And both genders’ tendency towards heavy drinking only worsens with advancing age.

The binge drinkers I am talking about here may have once been the up all night partying types. But most people who binge drink into midlife stop being social drinkers. They don’t drink in the company of others. They mostly drink alone. Or, they may have a drink or two at a social gathering. And, they don’t stop at that. They come back home to continue solitary drinking for the next 24-48 hours, skipping work and other obligations.

The consequences of binge drinking

Most people know about the physical health consequences of drinking too much, too often. It can destroy the liver, create memory problems, cause alcohol poisoning and death. But there are equally devastating social and economic consequences to binge drinking, as well.

Binge drinking creates inconsistency at work. There are some very intelligent individuals in the corporate world who have a binge drinking problem. These folks may get to positions of seniority and authority in midlife. However, they find it difficult to stay in a job for long because of this problem. The organisation may be able to overlook their unpredictable, complete disappearances for some time. Eventually, despite their brilliance, the employer’s patience runs out. The resulting job loss and career disruptions have an economic impact on the family.

Binge drinking also creates uncertainty and chaos in the lives of the family members. The family members never know when and in what condition the binge drinker will turn up. Or, not turn up. Binge drinkers are unpredictable around their drinking. Hence, family outings, occasions, formal events or informal events are all frought with anxiety for the family.

Kids often suffer the most. Society looks down upon those who get drunk frequently. Kids pick up this attitude and feel ashamed because of their parent. They avoid bringing friends home because they do not know what condition their binge drinking parent will be in.They also end up covering up for their parents or tend to ‘over-achieve’ to compensate. Kids also worry about their parent’s wellbeing. More long term, kids who have grown up with parents who are alcohol dependent have a greater likelihood of becoming alcohol dependent themselves.

And, we have not even considered the impact of living with the typical alcoholic that movies portray. The binge drinker who may be a wife beating, child beating, raging alcoholic. Or, the one who, inebriated, gambled away her life savings and is on the streets. Or, the one who got into a serious fight or a fatal car accident, drunk. Or, some other such drastic situation. All because alcohol messed up their ability to control impulses or think rationally.

But why do people get addicted?

Binge drinking in midlife can usually be traced to binge drinking in youth. When young people drink, it is mostly a group activity. Youth drink because they are curious, they enjoy the disinhibition it brings, it makes them a part of their peer group, or they drink under pressure from their peer group. Increasingly in midlife, though, binge drinking serves to fill some kind of a vacuum or helps avoid painful emotions. Boredom and stress are two justifications.

The question this brings up is: Do other people not go through painful emotions or stress? Everyone does not resort to binge drinking. There is judgment in that statement. Somewhere we believe the binge drinker lacks will power. The implication is that he/she is a weak person. Or, a lazy person. A defective human being.

It is true that most people who are addicted to alcohol hide their addiction. They fear the judgment we talked about. Drinking may be their only coping mechanism. Or, they have tried giving up but failed. They feel guilty about that. They may also feel that they have no control over it. It all makes them feel bad. Hence, they do not like talking about it. Most of the times, there is outright denial of the addiction. This makes it doubly difficult for well-wishers to point out the obvious.

Research so far tells us that it is a combination in various parts of genetics, learned behaviour, and mental health disorders that are to blame. If you have a family history of alcohol addiction and/or you are suffering from an anxiety disorder, clinical depression or bipolar disorder, you may more easily get addicted to alcohol. And then there is the physiology and psychology of addiction that keeps a person hooked. Physiological addiction basically means that a person needs to consume more and more alcohol to get the desired effect. However, the increasing levels of alcohol are toxic for the various organs of the body. Psychological addiction means that a person relies on alcohol rather than anything or anyone else to make them feel better or avoid painful emotions.

Giving up alcohol

Because alcohol provides some kind of immediate relief, it is difficult to stop alcohol use. There needs to be a strong reason to want to give up alcohol. Sometimes, that motivation gets created when one is confronted with a serious negative consequence.

For many women, their responsibilities as a parent or realising that their drinking is affecting their child spurs them to take corrective action. For men though, it is often the women in their life who nudge them or push them to seek help. The problem is that most of the time the binge drinker is not convinced that there is a problem.

Even when realisation finally strikes that alcohol is doing more harm than good, leaving it is difficult. Once the body gets used to a certain amount of alcohol, reducing the amount or stopping altogether is problematic. It is that horrible hangover amplified that makes many turn back to the bottle.

Support is, therefore, one of the biggest factors that usually helps those who want to leave alcohol. Support to keep one motivated. And, it is a daily battle to be fought. Family can play a big role in supporting the binge drinker leave alcohol. But it is a long journey. And sometimes family members are unable to show understanding and support on a consistent basis. At the first slip or second slip the family is ready to give up. And, one then gives up faith in one’s ability to get back on the sobriety track. This is where organisations or support groups like the AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) come in. AA membership is free and they hold meetings in most cities and towns in India. You are not judged, you are encouraged, and each milestone of sobriety is celebrated.

In addition to seeking help from a support group, you may also need to see a psychiatrist and/or psychologist/therapist. They would be especially helpful if your alcohol dependence is a result of a mental health condition, such as depression. Residential treatment programs are not a requirement. But if you are experiencing serious withdrawal symptoms, you should consider getting admitted to one. This is because your body can no longer function as normal without alcohol. Hence, you would need to detoxify under a medical professional’s care and supervision.

Binge drinking is a reality across all sections of society. And it takes a terrible toll. If you are a binge drinker, seek help. Achieving sobriety may take effort and time, but it is possible. If you are a family member or friend, talk to the binge drinker. Not with judgment, but with concern. And be there to support them on the long road to sobriety.

9 Reasons marriages end up in divorce in midlife

“Did you not know? They got divorced a couple of months ago. The kids are now in boarding school.” This piece of news may have come as a shock because you did not realize your friends were headed in separate directions.

Your friends are not an exception. Divorce is on the rise in India. Not just the big metros, even smaller towns in India are witnessing marital discord leading to separation. Often the affected couples are in their midlife. Many of them have kids. Separation at any stage of life is traumatic for one or both partners. However, when couples with children decide to separate, it affects many more lives.

As a spouse in midlife, this information can be quite unsettling. You may worry for your marriage. But, we can try to make sense of this phenomenon. Let’s begin by talking about expectations. No marriage is perfect. The only time couples walk into the sunset holding hands is in the movies. Most couples in real life go through ups and downs. Almost all have to work towards creating and sustaining a strong bond.

Couples also face different issues at different stages of life. Most marriages go through teething troubles in the early years. Some marriages do not survive the initial challenges. Others that do sometimes run into trouble during midlife.

Midlife is a time when one goes through many changes. The body changes, aspirations change, interests change, responsibilities change. The stresses that midlife brings affects relationships in big and small ways. And, a midlife marriage has to be strong enough to survive these changes.

From my clinical practice, I have noticed the following common reasons for a midlife breakup:

Boredom, feeling disconnected or alienated

Marriages are about choice. Even most arranged marriages have an element of choice. You chose to get married to your spouse because you found them special or different from the others in some way. Or, you felt special with them.

Now, age can erode that sense of ‘specialness’ as you become more familiar with your spouse’s failings (No one is perfect, remember?). Some spouses, in fact, become experts at criticising. They systematically disregard or negate all positive aspects of their spouse’s personality or behaviour. It is the “Yes, but…” on an unending loop. When either spouse is so critical, the “special” feeling gets killed. You don’t feel special and you don’t see your spouse as special, either.

The result is emotional withdrawal and distance. Over time a feeling of alienation, disconnect or boredom dominates the relationship.

Over-involvement in work/career pursuits

Often midlife brings career satisfaction. People may find themselves in positions of authority at this age. With authority and seniority comes a sense of achievement or accomplishment. But with that creeps in greater responsibility.

Most senior professionals find themselves still putting in long hours at work. Work related travel adds to time away from spouse and family. This can make couples feel disconnected. Or, one spouse feels that the burden of house-hold/family responsibilities is disproportionately falling on their shoulders. For couples who are already facing relationship issues, this can add to the list of resentments.

For some couples, over-involvement in work is also a way to avoid confronting relationship issues. It is the elephant in the room that grows bigger with time and eventually stomps all over.

Spouse’s involvement in other pursuits

Midlife is a time when many adults decide to take a break from what they have been doing so far. Or, they may decide to re-prioritise life.

After years of focusing on work and family they may decide to pursue or explore activities that they enjoy. Indian cities now offer a range of recreational activities from ultra-marathons to bird watching. These activities provide the opportunity to meet like-minded people and socialize.

In some cases, the time devoted to such activities is at the expense of the time and attention one can devote to family. When one spouse becomes deeply involved in any such individual interest, the other spouse can become deeply resentful.

Spouse’s worsened addiction

Addiction or dependence on alcohol, drugs of any kind, gambling or sex can become worse in midlife. If a person had got into these addictions earlier in life, they tend to persist unless treated. Some individuals can also fall into addictions as a way to deal with midlife stress. Many a times the addiction is a symptom of an underlying mental health condition, such as depression or bipolar disorder. In such cases, appropriate treatment of the mental health condition is required.

Most of the time addictions affect relationships. Living with a spouse who has an addiction causes great emotional and/or financial stress. At some point, the non-addicted spouse may decide that he/she can no longer endure such stress. Marriages that have survived into midlife can then fall apart.

Unresolved issues around intimacy

Sex in India is shrouded with much mystery and misconceptions. And most Indians do not seek appropriate help for problems with intimacy.

Many couples struggle with sex from the time they get married. Most such couples do not have any physiological or biological problems. The issues arise either from a lack of information and exploration or from psychological issues. By the time couples reach midlife, they have often given up trying to solve the sex mystery. But a feeling of dissatisfaction lingers. If intimacy is an issue and the feeling of ‘specialness’ is also missing, then the marriage is likely to run into trouble.

Infidelity

Not getting into morals and values, the fact is that individuals tend to vary in their commitment to a relationship. Many Indians get into marriage stating reasons other than wanting to spend their entire lives with that one person. In addition, some individuals thrive in the attention they get from the opposite sex. Looks and appearance may matter greatly. Hence, they are open to entering into sexual encounters outside of marriage.

One or both partners may also get into affair if there are long term, unresolved relationship issues. No marriage is perfect and all couples need to work through various differences. However, when one or both partners have created an emotional distance from the other or there is constant fighting and animosity, “specialness” disappears and space for an affair is created.

Empty nest

Children leaving home for college or work causes a big change in the lives of family members.

For couples whose lives have revolved around their children, adjusting to this change is challenging. But it is most difficult for couples who have been avoiding facing relationship issues. Some couples are unable to resolve issues, have long standing resentments and fail to create a mutually supportive relationship. Spouses in such a marriage begin to then rely on their children for emotional support. They connect more with their kids than with each other. The kids may even become the go between the parents. The only reason such couples cite for being together is the kids. When the kids leave, there is no glue to hold the marriage together.

Financial issues

When two people get married they often hold different views on money. Growing up experiences, personalities and family values around money determine how much importance individuals give to wealth and possessions. When two people have similar perspectives on money, it is easier. However, problems can arise if these thoughts diverge greatly. Most couples over time figure out a common policy on money. Any initial differences over whether separate accounts should be maintained or joint ones are usually resolved by midlife.

Midlife tends to bring up different concerns around money. Savings, investments, planning for retirement become more important issues. Financial responsibilities can also be significant if kids’ college education and health issues of family members are added to the mix. Job loss and career breaks can cause significant stress. One or both partners may feel unhappy with their financial situation and resent past or present decisions. Some are nagged by the thought that one’s earning years are limited. Resentments around financial issues can cause big rifts.

Social contagion – hanging out with friends who are divorced

Friends are a great source of support. They also play a big role in defining what is socially acceptable behaviour. This is not only true during one’s teenage years but throughout life.

Divorce is gaining social acceptability in India, and more so in the big cities. Knowing people who have gone through a divorce helps one view divorce as a feasible option. It also helps create social support if one decides to separate. Instead of struggling through issues with one’s spouse, it seems easier to call it quits.

 

Whatever be the reasons for marital dissatisfaction, divorce is rarely an easy decision. Life after divorce can also be difficult for one or both spouses and the kids. But, it is possible to save and build back marriages, even in midlife. Hopefully, knowing what leads midlife marriages to the divorce courts may help you course correct before it is too late.

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The above article is based on Dr. Dubey’s work with Indian couples.

Four ways to protect your marriage from midlife stress

Hectic 40’s is when we often find ourselves coasting in only one area – our marriage.

 

In our busy, hectic lives, work, kids, ageing parents and in-laws demand much of our time and attention. These are the years when most marriages in India begin to get relegated to the bottom of any list. Yes, couples vacation together. But, most no longer hold hands and gaze into each other’s eyes over candle-lit dinners. To many, it may seem silly to even think of doing that. After all, as a couple you have gone through many more significant experiences together, the candle-light dinner seems juvenile.

So, we assume the marriage does not need much attention and care. It is that old, comfy couch that will not go anywhere. But then one day you realize that the old, comfy couch groans and creaks, and eventually breaks. This is what happens to some marriages, too. Affairs, separation and divorce. Friends and family are shocked. Nobody, including most spouses, see it coming.

Most relationships can be prevented from breaking down. Most relationships can be repaired and made stronger.

Here is how not to let midlife stresses affect your decades old relationship.

– Stop avoiding difficult issues.

Often couples find specific topics difficult to talk about. These include intimacy, parenting, finance and caring for elderly in-laws or parents. Whatever be the topic, if you feel stressed by it and avoid talking to your spouse about it, then it may take a toll on the relationship. Resentment over these topics often builds over time and comes out as anger. When one spouse attacks the other in anger, the response is of a similar kind. The outcome is frequent fights or long, withdrawn silences. Both over time undermine the marriage. If you are unable to resolve your differences then it may be time to seek help.

– An hour a day of meaningful conversation.

An hour a day can actually keep the therapist away. There is usually enough and more going on in our lives to keep us super-busy. And, most couples communicate. However, what they talk about is transactional – who’s coming for dinner, who’s picking the kids up from drama class, when is the maid on leave, and so on. Couples do need to work as a team around these aspects of daily life. The problem is that often communication does not go beyond these aspects. Over time spouses become oblivious to each other’s emotional landscape. Or, everything is attributed to personality quirks – “Oh, he always complains about the traffic,” or “She just needs to go shopping to feel better.” No extra attention is then given when either spouse needs support. An exclusive hour everyday talking about what one is thinking and feeling, what one’s dreams and worries are, is the key. These conversations must be uninterrupted by phone, internet or anything/anyone else. This one hour can go a long way in re-establishing an emotional connection.

– Finding fun things to do together.

Having fun together helps create happy memories. The more happy memories one has with a person or activity the more positive one feels about that person or activity. Most couples do enjoyable things together in the early years of the relationship. Over time, though, more mundane, daily living activities seem to take over. The focus may also shift to kid centric activities. Or, either spouse may discover or begin to nurture an individual interest, such as golf or running that takes care of their fun and social needs. The downside is that as the couple does less and less together, there is less and less to bond over, to laugh over, to enjoy together. Exploring and trying out different activities may help you find something that you enjoy doing together. This can bring the fun back in the relationship.

– Resetting boundaries around the relationship.

Midlife is when responsibilities peak. One’s kids are not yet financially or emotionally independent, parents have become dependent, work place responsibilities and stresses are higher. Add to that the feeling that one is neither invincible nor is life unlimited. Most people, therefore, feel the need to nurture themselves, re-discover passions or re-prioritise life. The external demands and one’s internal needs often take away time and attention from one’s relationship. It is important at this time to protect the relationship by openly talking to each other about what one is thinking and feeling. It also means supporting each other through various decisions and handling family challenges as a team. There is also a need for balancing one’s own unique interests/involvements with the needs of the relationship. Hence, it becomes important to balance the time and effort we spend on individual pursuits with the time and attention we give to our spouse.

None of this is rocket science. However, if you have neglected your marriage for a long time, you may find it difficult to implement these suggestions. If you find yourself stuck, do seek the help of a trained marriage or couple’s therapist/counsellor.

Parenting in midlife: Understanding Teenage Suicide

Parenting in midlife: Understanding teenage suicide.

“I will kill myself and blame it on you,” said one upset teenager to another. The other responded, “You wait and see, …

Binge Drinking in Midlife

“He didn’t show up for any of the meetings yesterday or today. I saw him at the beginning of the party day before and …

9 Reasons marriages end up in divorce in midlife

“Did you not know? They got divorced a couple of months ago. The kids are now in boarding school.” This piece of news …