"We've given them everything, why are they still struggling?"
Teens today are experiencing unprecedented levels of anxiety. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 1 in 8 adolescents have an anxiety disorder. Even more alarmingly, a recent study by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America found that 50 percent of teenagers who experience an anxiety disorder will continue to suffer from it as adults. So why are teens struggling with anxiety more than ever before? And what can parents do to help their kids?
Here are some reasons for the increase in teen anxiety and awareness for parents to understand what they are going through.
1. Happiness is all the rage
Today's adolescents have been brought up under the notion that happiness is a choice, and that if they simply shift their focus to the positive sides of a situation, happiness will become their steadfast way of being. It's completely valid and expected to feel a powerful urge to remove the negative aura a teen may have whether it be the result of unprocessed sadness, anger, fear, or even daily routine frustrations. However, "saving" them from the unpleasant emotions removes their ability to learn ways to cope with it, as they will not always have parents around to problem solve. It's within this confidence in the self to be able to regulate emotional responses to the ever changing environment, that a teen can feel truly "safe", and happiness is always dependent on level of immediate safety.
Many teens today think feeling sadness means they have a depressive disorder, or if thet get really anxious about an important academic task that they have an anxiety disorder. Parents can help explain that unpleasant emotions are indicators that some element within the person - environment transaction needs to be visited, and reassessed for how helpful that way of doing that particular thing is. Parents will only increase their teen's level of happiness if they let them know that it's safe, and effective to accept unpleasant emotions as they guide humans towards becoming more adaptive to life's challenges - and not that they are under "attack" from these emotions.
2. Unrealistic praise
Another reason teens may be struggling with anxiety is because of the way they're being praised. Parents today are often praised for their parenting skills if their children are happy and well-adjusted, or at least appear that way. However, this can create a lot of pressure to be perfect, and can lead to unrealistic expectations. When parents are constantly telling their teens how proud they are of them, it can make it harder for teens to cope with failure.
Children/teens are also looking to be praised as the "best" at virtually anything, instead of learning that it's okay and completely expected to be run of the mill and average at most things. This doesn't mean they can't have high expectations for themselves - they just need to learn that what is gained in the process of approaching those expectations, is much more valuable than anything waiting at the finish line. And remember, the word extraordinary only exists because most things are ordinary. Not everyone can be the best at everything. If a teen isn't the best at something, let them participate regardless and leave the option to continue or move on to something else completely up to them.
3. Parenting Out of Guilt/Fear
Parents may also be inadvertently contributing to their teens' anxiety by parenting out of guilt and fear. In our increasingly competitive world, parents often feel like they have to give their children everything they need to succeed. This can lead to helicopter parenting, which is when parents hover over their children and try to control every aspect of their lives. This can be incredibly overwhelming for teenagers, who are already trying to figure out who they are and what they want in life.
Today's teens are also growing up in the age of instant access to information about virtually anything in the world with the internet. However, the answers to life's most important questions about our nature and what this all means, cannot be googled. These are answers that must be stumbled upon or realized in hindsight looking in the rearview at their past experiences. And no two individuals experience an emotion in the exact same way. Allowing teens to understand that they must wait for much of what will make them truly happy can be a powerful tool in reducing their overall anxiety.
4. All You Need is Love...and Validation
Perhaps the most important aspect of communicating with any individual, but especially teens, is validating their current experience, however it may differ from what parents may have experienced. The emotional brain of a child is dynamically shaped by how appropriately reflected their emotional experiences are as they learn to navigate the world and feel its pressures. Loving and caring about someone does not guarantee that they will feel safe and happy. It is within our most basic core needs as humans to have the way we feel understood as accurate and real, despite that feeling not necessarily driving us to take the best behavior going forward. For example, if a teen says that they want to punch someone for bullying them, it may seem counterintuitive to agree that the urge makes sense, as we do not want to influence that particular outcome. However, due to our innate need for doing what we want against those telling us what we cannot do, parents will often miss the window where you can actually reduce the chances of retaliation in this case, and shut down the feeling along with the teen's desired course of action. Striking the other person may not be the best option for long term goals and problem solving, but it's still an option. Parents will again, counterintuitively reduce the aggression by agreeing that a teen has the right to feel aggressive at the moment given the circumstances.
If they grow up believing that they are bad for feeling certain feelings, they will internalize this and increase a sense of threat and instability within, making the complexity of adult life even harder.
So why are so many teens struggling with anxiety? There are a number of reasons but one important piece to keep in mind is to listen and allow them to feel their feelings.
Teenagers today are under more pressure than ever before. They are still learning how to cope and that's ok. If you or someone you know is struggling with teen anxiety, don’t hesitate to reach out for help.
Sean O'Connor is a licensed mental health counselor (LMHC) at Peaceful Living Mental Health Counseling.
Sean specializes in sports psychology and trauma informed counseling to helps clients and athletes overcome anger, depression, anxiety, PTSD and stress.
Sean loves working with athletes and survivors of childhood trauma and helps them heal from the past, love the present, and have hope for the future.
Sean has some availability to take new clients! Call us at 914-222-3983 ext. 1