Creating A Sense Of Belonging In A Media-Saturated Culture

A woman with a five year old asked me if it was normal that her son was expressing a desire to run away from home, telling her "I hate you" and screaming that she didn't understand him when he felt angry. She said that she wasn't expecting that type of behavior until he was a teenager.

More and more often now I'm being asked the question "is it normal for a young child to be so rude, to want to run away, to have such an `attitude'?" Unfortunately the answer is not altogether clear cut. On the one hand, children of all ages speak in a kind of code. Especially when they're angry they have a tendency to miscommunicate that feeling by screaming things like "I hate you." So in that sense, occasional rude behavior, or screaming "I hate you" is normal. On the other hand, I as well as other counselors are seeing an alarming trend - younger and younger children are expressing a desire to get away from the dependency that they should have and do need from their parents. In addition, younger children are adopting mannerisms, verbal communication and "attitude" that was once the realm of teens only. It's this too early "pushing away" and rejection of their parents as well as the untimely adoption of adolescent behaviors that is of concern. And it comes from the fact that many children feel less and less like they "belong" in their family, and more and more like they "belong" in the hyped, media saturated culture that whirls around them daily.

Parent educators and psychologists who study child development believe one critical problem that exists for children today is that they are suffering from overexposure to developmentally inappropriate ideas and images. Mary Pipher, in her book "The Shelter of Each Other: Rebuilding our Families" states that "we live in houses without walls ... More and more often our children are being exposed to information that they are not developmentally capable of handling, and to people whose sole intent may be to harm them." She's referring to children's exposure to television, the internet, movies and video games.

Yet most parents are unaware of how harmful it can be to expose their children to too much, too fast. Even seemingly harmless movies, videos and television shows which are marketed towards younger children can present images which children have difficulty processing. For example, a woman with a three year old girl was disturbed because her daughter was tying her Barbie dolls up, hanging them upside down and screaming "fire, she's on fire, come save her." While this disturbing behavior would initially make a therapist think the child had suffered some horrible trauma, after a bit of conversation it became apparent that the child's favorite video at the time was Disney's "Hunchback of Notre Dame" and the child was simply trying to process, through her play, the disturbing image of Esmerelda being burned at the stake. When the mother took the video away (as well as other videos with disturbing scenes) the child discontinued playing with her Barbies in that manner.

Young children are not the only victims, however. Pre-adolescents and adolescents are also being exposed to disturbing images that they're not capable of processing - from the "Chuckie" movies to "Titanic" to "Saving Private Ryan" - images of sexuality, violence and even lifestyle choices may be too overwhelming for particular ages. While some children will process some of these images through playing, writing, drawing or talking, for most children of all ages, at least some of the information will remain unexplored. The result is that when children don't process the numerous visual and auditory images they are presented with, those images are repressed, causing the impression to outsiders (like parents) that their child is "handling" the images, that the child is unaffected. Repressed images, however do not just "go away." Sometimes, the child will process the images in their dreams, causing them to wake up in the middle of the night with nightmares. For other children, their behavior changes, they adopt that "attitude" we talked about earlier, and explore behaviors that are inappropriate for their developmental level. Still other children will be seemingly unaffected for even longer periods of time, but will incorporate on a subconscious level the values messages presented by the media - what makes life exciting, what are relationships about, what is love like, how should we treat others. Many times, as adults, they are discontent because they are subconsciously seeking the "Hollywood" version of an exciting, romance-filled life of abundance.

Another fallout of media-saturated children is that television, video, movies, Nintendo, Game Boys, etc, all draw the child away from spending time with her family. This creates a sense of isolation for the child which in turn causes her to seek a sense of belonging among her peers and through adopting the trends promoted by the media. In the last issue I recommended instituting a weekly family meeting to help create a sense of belonging for the child within the family. In addition, however, parents need to be aware of how much time their children are spending engaged in what Ron Taffel (NYC parent educator) calls "second family activities", those activities that the child turns toward instead of the nuclear family. In other words, how much real time are your children spending in front of the television for example? National statistics indicate that the average child spends 21 hours in front of the TV per week, and that by the end of high school a child will have spent 13,000 hours in school, and over 16,000 in front of the television. These statistics don't even include other "second family" activities - peer interaction, video games, and the internet, all of which contribute to a sense of isolation and which must be seriously evaluated by conscientious parents.