Teen Anxiety – Helping Our Teens Thrive

A New York Times article made the observation that More American Teenagers are suffering from severe anxiety than ever.  Why is that the case and what can we do about it?

Most adults believe teenagers are growing up in the same culture they grew up in.  You may say, “Wait a minute, that’s not true.  I hear adults saying all the time ‘teens have it much harder’ and ‘boy times are different.’”  It is true, adults say these types of statements, but they don’t actually believe them.  Adults will also speak out of the other side of their mouth and say, “Why when I was your age I,” and you can fill in the blank:

– already had my whole life mapped out.

– was holding down 2 jobs to help support my family.

– already knew what college I was going to go to and what I was going to major in.

– bought my own car, clothes, and took care of myself.

Do you see the contradiction?  If we believe teens are living in a different world than we are why are we still comparing them to ourselves?  That is like saying, “When I was your age I started on the football team, you be able to be a starter also.”  The only difference is, the dad went to a school with a graduating class of 50 and their teen goes to a school with a graduating class of 700.  It is not a fair comparison no matter how you look at it.  We have to get it through our heads that our teens our living in a completely different world and culture than we lived in.  If we believe teens are growing up in a different culture and context than we did, we must throw our experiences and expectations based on how we did it out the window.

There has been much research and talk done on the affects of social media on teens but there is a broader more pervasive cultural shift that has occurred.  Abandonment has become a dominant and almost overwhelming theme in today’s teen world.  The way teens become adults is by living life with adults and having adults model what the next stage of their life should look like.  However, adults are not adulting and teens are spending less and less time with adults who will “do life” with them.  Chap Clark says, “The fact is that adolescents need adults to become adults, and when adults are not present and involved in their lives, they are forced to figure out how to survive on their own.”[1]  Patricia Hersch says, “The more we leave kids alone, don’t engage, the more they circle around on the same adolescent logic that has caused dangerous situations to escalate.”[2]

Outsourcing is one major problem with our approach to parenting that has caused teens to feel abandoned.  Our teens are so busy and overscheduled that families don’t have time to sit and be with one another.  Chap Clark points out, “In a major study of one thousand children and adolescents, for example, the majority reported that the time they spent with parents was often hurried.  Even those who did not feel this way lacked evidence of the depth and substance of the child-parent interchange that is essential for healthy adolescent development.”[3]  While teens might appreciate us doing things for them they would rather us spend time with them.  Our culture has lost the ability to spend unstructured downtime together. 

Let’s get blunt.  Watching your kid practice football or driving your kid to band practice while they sit in the back on their phone does not count as quality or quantity time together.  You might as well be in different cities.  These things are not wrong of course but research has shown teens actually want and need to spend time with their parents.  One of the biggest needs teens have is feeling accepted.  They need it as much as air or water.  And they won’t be filled up or have that need met by being driven in a car or by playing band.  They need quantity and quality time with their parents.

The other reason teens feel abandoned is because they feel like that must perform to please.  Teens feel as if every adult in their life gives them attention, is pleased with them, or notices them because of what the teen provides for the adult.  Teens are noticed in school for how well they do in class, they are given extra attention in band because they are the star pupil, they are praised at home for how well they do in school or sports or other activities.  Our culture has shifted from “You are good” to “You need to be good.”  Thirty years ago teens were appreciated for just being themselves; people saw value in them just for being kids.  Now teens are valuable for what they produce or how they can serve the interests of the adults in their life.  Can they make their parents look good, can they win awards in band and make the instructor look good, can they play well in sports so the coach can win a title?  Teens see right through adults and feel abandoned by adults because adults act like they only want teens for what they can do for them.

Teens want to be accepted for who they are not what they are.  They want adults to notice them and care for them even when they fail, are no good, and can’t serve the interests of the adult.  Teens need unconditional love and friendship to thrive.  We will continue this conversation next week.

Here is another great article by Psychology Today that offers some great tips and advice on how parents can help their teens with their anxiety.

[1] Hurt 2.0, Chap Clark, 26-27.

[2] Hurt 2.0, Chap Clark, 27.

[3] Hurt 2.0, Chap Clark 36.

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