According to the New York Times article titled, “Why Are More American Teenagers Than Ever Suffering from Severe Anxiety?”, 1/3 of adolescents and adults suffer from overactive fight or flight responses and privileged teens are among the most emotionally distressed.
I’ve experienced first-hand the increase in anxiety in privileged homes. Living in the suburbs of Minneapolis where my kids attend a well-regarded public school system, gives me a ringside seat to the pressure and worries. Even in the elementary school where I work as a substitute paraprofessional, the kids experience a good amount of stress.
Why the increase in anxiety in the safe, comfy, privileged life?
Based on the New York Times article and my experience, I see three reasons.
I. Academics and pressure to succeed
This one seems obvious. The intense pressure to get good grades and get into the best college, is tough. Competition is fierce and no one wants to fail. In the eyes of a kid, failure can mean a bad grade on one quiz.
As my son is a senior this year, I’ve learned the ins and outs of the college application process and the astonishing fact that many kids applying for the top schools have greater than a 4.0 grade point average. This means these young people have done a lot of extra credit and Advanced Placement classes, anything to set them apart or make them look like high achievers.
College applications also beg for leadership roles and participation in community organizations. This is great but again huge time commitments and competition. My son had to apply for acceptance into the National Honors Society, despite already having the needed grade point average. It was a lengthy application. When I was in school, we just had to have the proper grade point average and voila! you were in.
To make things worse, comparing yourself to others has become ridiculously easy. Social media has kids comparing everything from grades to clothing to spring break vacations. Their daily grades and data about how they rank in the school academically are at their fingertips online too.
The teens stress out because it seems there is no end to their plight. They never reach a point where they can say, “I’m done.” Resting leads to falling behind and … failing. I know parents, including myself, that feel this way too.
In The Quiet Rise of Introverts, I wrote about the meritocracy and how love is given conditionally these days. Kids believe they are only lovable if they get good grades, are attractive, have the right friends, make a lot of money, etc. Add to that overbearing or anxious parents and no wonder teens are full of anxiety! We all want to be loved for who we are, unconditionally. Society tells us that is not how it works.
II. Cultural Messages
Along with the pressure of conditional merit-based love comes what seems like the parents’/adults’ way of making up for it — the message that children should not have to feel any discomfort. Their external environment should bend around them to prevent any distress.
I personally feel like I can’t ask my kids to do much work around the house because they are already so loaded with school work and extra-curricular activities (musts for the college application and a requirement of the suburban tribe). My son hasn’t had time to do or even put away his laundry in six weeks. He’s almost 18 years old.
Schools and parents have a lot more plans for helping kids deal with stress. Unfortunately, many of them let them sidestep distress altogether. For example, children with anxiety are allowed to take tests in separate rooms from their classroom and can take as long as needed. They have permission to come in the back door of schools to avoid the big crowds coming in the front doors. If they have a stomach-ache because there is a test that day or they don’t want to see someone in the hallway, they get to stay home from school.
Lack of exposure or introversion?
My own kids don’t like talking on the phone or going into stores or talking to people who work in stores. We associate many of these dislikes with introverts. OK maybe they are partially a result of our temperament. Or maybe they are simply avoidance of something unpredictable or uncomfortable?
Maybe the avoidance is a result of their doubt they can handle such experiences because they haven’t had to do them very often and society says kids are fragile. There are a lot of messages these days about safe places and being triggered. These messages whisper that we (especially young people) can’t handle much discomfort.
Helping kids avoid everyday stress and discomfort leaves them with no coping skills and an increased estimation of danger and their inability to handle it.
III. Technology/smart phones
Teens and tweens bury themselves in their phones. It is a big part of their social and everyday lives. It is hard to extract the phone from the teenager’s life. In my day, I used the phone regularly to connect vocally with my friends but it was attached to a wall at home so it didn’t go everywhere with me and I didn’t rely on it to answer all of my questions. I had to (got to?) experience horribly awkward phone conversations with boys where we both sweat out the silent moments between topics. But I survived and now I don’t die a thousand deaths if there are pauses in my conversations with others.
Smart phones today provide control and certainty. Kids can get a text message ‘just right’ before they send it. They use their phones to google answers to their every question. They find out exactly what restaurants, parties, organizations, etc. are like before they commit to attending. We had to actually go to an event before we knew if it was lame or a blast.
Phones also are the perfect way to avoid life, feelings and interactions. Living through memes, texts and social media on a screen, isn’t living. Focusing on the latest thread on instagram helps ameliorate any emotions that pop up. Grab the phone and you have a pseudo companion and perfect distraction. Again, no practice with face to face interacting makes real interacting that much scarier.
Severe anxiety debilitates. If a child avoids everything that makes them uncomfortable their life is seriously hindered. What can we do about this trend toward avoidance? How can we curtail it? Find out in my next post.
Do you know a teen who suffers from anxiety? Are we aiding in teens’ inability to handle discomfort? Is anxiety more innate or more environmentally influenced?
If you’d like to know more about social anxiety and ways to reduce it, check out The Quiet Rise of Introverts: 8 Practices for Living and Loving in a Noisy World now available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Indie Bound and Books a Million and in your local bookstores.