A recent New York Times Magazine article painted a poignant picture of American teenagers and young adults suffering with anxiety. The author, Benoit Denizet-Lewis, described a significant increase in college undergraduates who report “overwhelming anxiety.” I thought it was shocking enough that in 2011, 50% of college students felt intense worry, but by 2016, that number was up to 62%.
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health diagnoses among adolescents. Statistics from the National Institute of Mental Health indicate prevalence rates of 30 percent for females and 20 percent for males between the ages of 13 to 18. Kids and teens with anxiety worry excessively; they worry every day and sometimes all day. They often have trouble sleeping and have vague physical complaints. They can be perfectionistic, controlling, and irritable. They can be socially isolated and mislabeled as “shy.” The worry can get caught up in body image and food and result in eating disordered behavior. The worry can seep into social relationships leading to anxiety about fitting in with the popular kids, wearing the right clothes, and getting invited to the right parties.
From the outside, many of these kids look like they are doing great. They’re taking multiple AP classes, they are excelling at a sport or an instrument, they belong to clubs and serve in student government, they do community service, and they get high test scores. But, it never seems enough to them. Their level of achievement is never so high that it stops the worry. There is always one more thing that they can, and therefore should, be doing: a perfect math SAT score, a 7th or 10th AP class, captain of the basketball team. To many parents, these kids seem so much more disciplined and driven than we were at their age; we often feel a twinge of envy. But, for these kids, their sense of who they are – whether they are a good person or a bad person – derives mostly from what they have accomplished.
Suniya Luthar, a professor of psychology at Arizona State University, who has researched mental health and resilience in children, states that there is no one cause for the rise in anxiety that we see in American youth. It is not just social media or overbearing parents. It is not just schools that slot kids into gifted or honors tracks in 3rd grade. According to Luthar, “It’s all about accomplishments and achievements…. It is not just the family, it is not just the child. It is the culture we live in, the universities, the schools; everybody coming together to reinforce that one big message. If you can, therefore you must. Do not stop.”
But, in fact, helping kids stop is exactly what we must do if we want them to be less anxious and less depressed. So, what can parents do?
I like to start at the same place I start with most problems. Empathy.
Let your child know that you hear them. Label and reflect their feelings. Don’t minimize. Getting a C on a geometry test or not being asked to the school dance may seem insignificant to you, but it isn’t to your child. If you minimize your child’s anxiety she may need to ramp it up to show that she really, truly feels bad.
Next, remember biology.
Anxiety is part of the human condition. If we didn’t worry, we wouldn’t survive as a species. Anxiety serves to activate the fight-or-flight response in the face of danger. Kids who experience intense anxiety have over-responsive flight-or-flight systems, but a little anxiety is actually a useful thing. It keeps kids from taking unnecessary risks, like trying a challenging skateboard trick without a helmet. Anxiety about getting good grades motivates kids to study for tests. Helping turn the dial down is the goal, but eliminating anxiety totally is impossible.
Third, teach your child to self-soothe.
The greatest gift we can give our children is the ability to soothe themselves in the face of emotional distress. Each child will have different strategies. Think about what you do to self-soothe. Read, take a run, do yoga, binge watch Game of Thrones…. Kids need strategies too. For some movement is good – shooting hoops or kicking the soccer ball around. For some, sensory input helps. A good cuddle with the dog will bring down the emotional temperature. My daughter, a college–aged aspiring actor, has a shoebox labeled “The Anxious Actor’s Toolkit.” In the box is, among other things, a teabag of her favorite tea, a fir-scented candle, glitter nail polish, and a list of positive self-statements such as, “There will always be another audition.” She uses the tool kit to prep before an audition and to soothe after a rejection. Does it help her land roles? I’m not sure, but it certainly helps her soothe herself after a disappointment.
Fourth, step it down a notch.
Young people mistakenly think anxiety is an all or nothing phenomenon. Either they are in the throes of a panic attack or they are blissfully calm. Anxiety doesn’t work that way. Have your child image how he would feel if he could be 10% less stressed. What would help to turn the dial down 10%? Knowing that you don’t have to get to zero anxiety can help.
Anxiety’s BFF is avoidance. Your daughter is anxious about the class trip to Boston, so she tells you she doesn’t want to go. Your son is worried about the history test, so he tells you he thinks he is getting a cold and asks if he can stay home from school. When you are worried about something, avoidance soothes that fight-or-flight response and as a result, avoidance is reinforced. Exposure therapy is a key component of treatment for anxiety. Helping your child face and not avoid his or her fears is important.
But, like all challenges we have as parents, things go better with empathy. Facing fears has to be done with compassion in order for it to be effective. Exposure needs to be done gently. Parents need to recognize that managing worry is hard work for many kids. Baby steps towards the goal should be praised and celebrated.
We welcome your thoughts…