Halloween, that crazy time of year when I fear the worst: an egg at my car or my kids, hopefully that’s it. I don’t really like it. I remember when the kids were little — who would go walking, who man the door; who had the right costume, who had a flashlight. Exciting for them. Me, not so much! The idea of death, fear and darkness frighten me. As if the kids weren’t frightened enough with their scary clowns and active shooter drills. Enough with the Angst.
Three excellent articles recently came to my attention regarding adolescent anxiety, which is apparently soaring. We have to ask ourselves, is it more prevalent, or are we just keeping better score? This keeps me busy. But the big question as to WHY we are seeing this uptick is seriously troubling.
The articles make strong points about too much or too little parenting being damaging; and on both ends of the too much or too little parenting spectrum we see major problems, many of which are not new (helicopter – you lobby to change your kids’ grades; neglect – you don’t keep food in the house). However, obviously it’s been stated for years that the screens are debilitating a generation of worthy kids. So we have the HOW. The authors seem to think that screens make them intolerant of pain and discomfort. The thesis is that in my generation (Boomer, Cusp) we had no complete escape from loneliness and boredom and fear, so we had to face it, get through it. I do remember countless times of boredom (try reading), listlessness (ride a bike), depression (break up, move on), fear of the unknown (dive in), difficulties with relationships (stop being so clingy) and dread (what is my purpose?). In all of these cases I practiced being alone until I gained a bit of mastery, even forcing myself to foreign countries so I could prove myself.
Now, loneliness IS the anxiety.
The articles go on to say that the spike of “Those numbers — combined with a doubling of hospital admissions for suicidal teenagers over the last 10 years, with the highest rates occurring soon after they return to school each fall — come as little surprise to high school administrators across the country, who increasingly report a glut of anxious, overwhelmed students.” While it’s difficult to tease apart how much of the apparent epidemic of anxiety is related to an increase in awareness and diagnosis of the disorder, many of those who work with young people suspect that what they’re seeing can’t easily be explained away. “We’ve always had kids who didn’t want to come in the door or who were worried about things,” says Laurie Farkas, a psychologist, “But there’s just been a steady increase of severely anxious students.”
“So many teens have lost the ability to tolerate distress and uncertainty, and a big reason for that is the way we parent them,” said another psychologist.
The tried and true frontlines of CBT, DBT and Mindfulness may not be enough. Now add new age psychadelics for PTSD, and worldwide political chaos, and we get off the mark. College debt seems to be tracking with the angst. Gun violence and climate change lurk behind teen angst. Many of my patients are not even allowed to go out on holidays, or any days for that matter. One of my client’s best friends was shot in the street. Here is where we find ourselves this Halloween. Life is scary enough. I am watching The Sopranos for the first time. The violence and rape seem tame now compared to Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones. We have become comfortably numb.
Exposure is another method to conquer fear but only when it’s done incrementally. Without practice, gentle nudging, and guidance, kids never gain confidence that they can face their fears head-on. Plus, what therapist was trained to intentionally trigger a patient into vomiting or watching a car drive off a bridge. These are not interventions we can tread lightly on.
I am doing what I always do, but with greater results and intention. Here are specific ideas:
- Tell them you are there for them all the way. You will not drop them when they go to college. (Even though in some cases insurance could force you to).
- Tell them honestly you will help with their college essays because it’s not that serious and you can do it.
- Tell them if they fail one school they can try another.
- Tell them medication is not wrong if they are shaking and collapsing every day.
- Tell them their parents suck and they should be mad.
- Tell them there is hope if they work hard and then play. That self-discipline and structure are their friend.
- Tell them to avoid all substances from their growing brains.
- Tell them that self-harm is more than a cry for help, it is dangerous.
- Tell them that the world will keep turning, and that there is more to life than the SAT.
- Allow them to process and validate childhood trauma no matter how long it takes.
- Tell them to take care of themselves no matter what.
- Bring in family members when ever appropriate.
- Develop trust by being transparent.
- Use your own feelings – say, “This is making me feel upset, I can only imagine how you must feel.”
- Remind them that feelings don’t define them. Even if you feel like crap, do it anyway.
The paradigm of emotional resilience is more valuable than ever. Trick or Treat for a safe, and innocent Halloween. Save me a Twix.