Learners choose to adopt a culture of silence when faced by the myriad complex challenges being negotiated by adolescents today. As parents, educators and caregivers this apparent inability to communicate is baffling and frustrating. How do we break through this and encourage our young people to speak out and not to keep situations of abuse, fear, bullying and inappropriate behavior secret from those who can help them?

Over the course of the last decade, I have increasingly been aware how, through the media, more and more cases are being disclosed of sexual assault, violence and serious bullying. Many of these stories are generally only being uncovered a long time after the initial crime was perpetrated. So why are children not speaking out about these challenges sooner? Today’s teenagers are being raised in what I could quite easily describe as “The Perfect Storm” – a combination of internal factors that are in place by virtue of their age and their stage of personal, physical, psychological and social development. This is coupled with a barrage of external factors that have never been experienced in quite this way before in our human history.

What we know about teenagers is that they have a driving need to be accepted. This is something that very often parents forget. Teenagers need to be accepted for who they are and even more so because they are at a time in their lives when they are continuously self-validating.

What acceptance do teenagers need from us? Much of their life takes place in the cyber world. Whether we’re talking about various communication platforms or online gaming, these are the things that most teenagers identify as a significant part of their world. Parents however will very often demean their world with thoughtless, condescending comments like: “Stay off your phone!” or “You don’t need to be permanently whatsapping!” or, “Why are you always glued to the screen?” Of course regulating our children’s time on the phone and devices would be beneficial, but if, as parents and caregivers, we took more interest in the cyber-world that our children are growing up in, they would be more likely to ask us to assist them when challenges in their world arose.

Boys and girls respond to this predicament differently based on socially-enforced gender divisions. The Cowboys don’t Cry mantra still typically defines boys’ reluctance to communicate; and girl teenagers tend to psychologically self-flagellate themselves with their own insecurities which informs their silence.

The next element of this Perfect Storm is today’s youth are mostly being raised more and more without the ability to resolve conflict. All too often parents and caregivers jump in and solve the problems of children without giving them an opportunity to resolve challenges on their own. What we have is a human being who really needs someone to affirm and accept their existence in a world which hasn’t allowed them to learn the social skills to address conflict. They become extremely easy to manipulate and to take advantage of. We have thus created fertile ground for the predator, drug dealer, human trafficker, teacher with ulterior motives etc.

What we see is an inexperienced insecure young person trying to fit into a world that even their parents are not trying to engage in; with no ability stand up for themselves now engaging with people who want to take advantage of them. When put like that, it doesn’t seem like rocket science to realize that the Perfect Storm our teenagers are living in has been quite extensively created by us.

We can’t wave a magic wand and undo it, so the question is, how do we create a platform, a vehicle or a mechanism for them to put up their hand and ask for help. And for someone who can and wants to help, to be there to grab it.

To try and work towards having conversations about these issues Durban High School is hosting a one-day seminar has been put in place to address secrecy faced in schools. Open to high school management and educators, Governing Body Members and RCL members, the primary focus is to consider why learners choose to adopt a culture of silence when they are faced by the very many issues of adolescence today. Coming out of that conversation is an opportunity for participants to examine ways of creating suitable vehicles and environments that are conducive to allowing teenagers to speak out about these challenges and no longer keep them a secret.

This article appeared in Independent on Saturday on Sat 27 April 2019

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Marc Hardwick MD of The Guardian: a specialist child abuse investigation company. The Guardian is a partner in the inaugural Safe Schools Seminar to be held at Durban High School on Friday 10 May. For more information, click here.