WHY ARE MORE AMERICAN TEENAGERS THEN EVER SUFFERING FROM SEVERE ANXIETY?
Recently, The New York Times ran a feature story about the epidemic of severe anxiety affecting U.S. teenagers. Some key takeaways:
- Anxiety is the most common mental-health disorder in the United States, affecting nearly one-third of adolescents.1
- Researchers have tracked a surge in youth who report feeling “overwhelmed by all I have to do,” from 18 percent in 1985 to 41 percent today.1
- There has been a doubling of hospital admissions for suicidal teenagers over the last ten years, with the highest rates occurring soon after they return to school each fall.1
Earlier this month, the Jesuit and Edison community had the benefit of a visit from guest speaker Kevin Ashworth, clinical director of the NW Anxiety Institute. He spoke to parents and staff in the morning. Then, during 3rd period, he gave a dynamic presentation to all Edison students and Jesuit sophomores. I was very impressed that a handful of our students asked very pertinent and relevant questions at the end of Mr. Ashworth’s presentation.
Mr. Ashworth uses Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to treat children, adolescents and adults experiencing intense anxiety or distress. According to the website for the group National Alliance on Mental Illness, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) “focuses on exploring relationships among a person's thoughts, feelings and behaviors. During CBT a therapist will actively work with a person to uncover unhealthy patterns of thought and how they may be causing self-destructive behaviors and beliefs. By addressing these patterns, the person and therapist can work together to develop constructive ways of thinking that will produce healthier behaviors and beliefs. The core principles of CBT are identifying negative or false beliefs and testing or restructuring them."
Ashworth believes that if we continue to treat people by taking away a distressor, it robs the person of feeling or practicing distress tolerance. By progressively exposing his clients to their “trigger” while providing some accommodations, the client builds tolerance to the distressor.
Think of your teen. Do you want him/her to go through life with a limited ability to experience distress? How will this affect confidence, and the ability to manage emotion or make decisions? As a parent myself, I understand the primal need to protect your child. Asking kids to “feel bad” is horribly uncomfortable, yet somewhat necessary if we want them to develop the life skills they need to be successful, emotionally-healthy adults.
- Don’t give an excess of reassurance to your child’s anxious thoughts. While it may give your high schooler a brief reprieve, it can make them feel inadequate about their own decision-making capabilities. Does this mean we should never reassure our kids? No, it doesn’t. Asking once for assurance is typical, but when a teen is asking repeatedly for your reassurance, they are avoiding the emotion or problem. Constant reassurance doesn’t provide an opportunity to develop the skills needed to make a decision or face the anxiety.
- Manage your own anxiety. Who’s more anxious about the situation? You or your child? Remember that kids look at us to model appropriate and healthy behavior. If you are anxious, your child will pick up on this and it can worsen their anxiety. When my son was a toddler and he would trip or fall, my husband and I would try so hard not to rush over, appear scared, or make a big deal. Our hearts were in our throats, but now we have a 6-year-old that takes many a tumble and then shouts out, “I’m ok!” and continues whatever he was doing. Take a deep breath and remind yourself that you are not responsible for your child’s emotional experience. You can be empathetic without being enabling.
- Avoidance of the anxious situation, thought, or feeling is not a healthy coping skill. The anxiety and distress may be physically or emotionally crippling but avoidance may well lead to long-term, more severe problems. My mom used to joke that she wanted to “lock me in the closet” during my teenage years, safe from all the toil and trouble that awaited in the world. Of course she didn’t—and I survived. Did I experience moments of anxiety and distress? Yes. Did I also learn how to manage my emotional distress and find positive coping skills to deal with my anxiety? Eventually, yes. Acquisition of these skills takes time, maturity and a safe environment in which to fail.
1 Denizet-Lewis, Beniot Why Are More American Teenagers Then Ever Suffering From Severe Anxiety. New York Times Magazine.. 2017; 11:10.