Surprise! Nigerian teenagers are actual human beings with feelings

In a perfect world, the realisation – for that’s what it, not a discovery – that teenagers grapple with a lot of emotional upheaval in their lives won’t come as a surprise. They are after all human, their experience barring early death forms part of the human collective experience we love to explore in books, films, music – art generally.

Yet, for reasons that will become clear in this piece, a Nigerian adult – who themself has been a teenager in their lifetime – could wake up one day after allowing a teenager the room to be human, to be heard, and marvel at how much “These children are going through.”

“These children have social anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. What a wawu!” They exclaim.

They also try – in the best way they know how – to figure out what the reason could be for this.

“It is all the social media,” is a favourite. What else could it be? All the billion-plus comparisons in the world at one’s fingertip. A constant barrage of information, new knowledge forcing a real-time shift in convictions. It seems at face value like a solid scapegoat.

The truth is however that even these adults – many of them uncles, aunties, parents, and big brothers and sisters of teenagers – know that is not in fact the reason. They know the reason, but to admit your failure at bringing up a wholesome human being that can cope with life’s hardships is not an easy thing to do. To admit that you, may in fact be the reason.

A culture of mate groups

There is a popular Nigerian saying, if ‘saying’ is what you call the loud non-boast that Nigerians love to whip out whenever they feel dissatisfied about something or feel threatened by someone.

“Do you know who I am?”

There is also its close cousin, “I am not your mate!”

 Here is the damage I know from lived experience that respectability culture has caused many a Nigerian, from Kano to Delta.

One could hardly ever think of one’s life as a continuous journey from childhood into adulthood.

Once we were kids and we played with kids our age under the supervision of someone older.

Then we became teenagers, brimming with everything from hormones to ideas. Hormones that make us moody, horny, frustrated especially when we can’t get a word in edge-wise to share all our great ideas with the adults around us.

Then we become adults – sometimes by fighting our parents tooth and nail for every inch of freedom – and from there on out we can’t be stopped. Soon enough, we are the one’s hurling, “I’m not your mate,” at anyone that seems remotely beneath us whether in age or station.

The reason people can wake up to marvel that teenagers too can have so much to deal with is because for many – raised in Nigeria by Nigerian parents – those trying years had to be suppressed by their mind so they can function however abysmally as adults. Hence they can barely remember their teenage years. It is all roses.

We can only collectively maintain the charade of respect for adults who physically, emotionally, and verbally assaulted us in the name of raising us if we are able to file away the trauma of our experience with them. Or so we think because there is always a healthier way of coping with trauma if you just look.

We can remember in safe company. Cry about it if we must. Forgive them if we can. Then begin trying to build a healthy relationship.

Those stratifications:

  • Of mate-groups that keep anyone with a hint of ‘childhood’ in them outside community.
  • Of memories that are too difficult to face, so we file them away and get on with our lives.

They are the reason we rarely get to see the human in teenagers – understandably individual contexts will vary from person to person and home to home.

Social anxiety in teenagers

Any psychologist worth the title will let you know for free that anxiety is part of the adolescent package we are all dealt, even when the adults in our lives try their best.

Your body is changing in a way that is loaded with social expectations.

If you are a boy your biggest fears may be increased responsibility – a phantom for many but a real and terrifying fact of life for the less privileged – that and maybe having to start using deodorant to mask the musky scent of growth occasioned by hormones.

If you are a girl your fears are a long list that this piece cannot afford to cover, lest it disrespects the depth of harrowing experience.

But think:

  • Being sexualized by everyone from your own parents who project their fear of all the things men could do to you, to your favourite youth pastor who all of a sudden can’t stop talking about your budding breasts which you didn’t ask for.
  • Being punished for enjoying anything, by parents, schools, pastors and imams.
  • Having to learn early that the world could devour you and spit out your bones and so you have to double your caution and keep doing so for most of – if not all – your life.

Those are just the tip of the iceberg. And if that isn’t enough reason to have anxiety, those new hormones that bring new body changes also bring mood changes.

Add to that the relationship dynamic between parents and children that prevails in Nigeria. One where a child is to be seen and not heard – teenagers fight to be seen not as children but apprenticing adults just to avoid this but they rarely succeed, if ever.

Are we better served just marveling at the complexity of teenagers and blaming social media for their anxiety and depression or actually reviewing the way we raise children so that we have support systems that help them deal with the trials of growing up?

The former seems like the better idea to me.

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