Anxiety is increasingly becoming a serious issue for American teens. Sixty-two percent of incoming freshman surveyed by the American College Health Association said they’d experienced overwhelming anxiety the year before, up from 50-percent in 2011. High school counselors and parents are increasingly aware of the problem, especially when teens are so anxious they don’t want to go to school.
While teens from many backgrounds experience anxiety, it’s often the more affluent families who find the problem most baffling. Adults aren’t surprised when teens from poor neighborhoods feel anxious about safety or home dynamics, but it can be harder to understand what’s going on with kids who seem to have everything going for them.
In his New York Times Magazine article, Benoit Denizet-Lewis follows several teens from this group in an effort to understand what anxious teens are feeling and the treatment options available to them. Often their anxiety stems from feeling they aren’t in control of their futures. Denizet-Lewis writes:
Teenagers raised in more affluent communities might seemingly have less to feel anxious about. But Suniya Luthar, a professor of psychology at Arizona State University who has studied distress and resilience in both well-off and disadvantaged teenagers, has found that privileged youths are among the most emotionally distressed young people in America. “These kids are incredibly anxious and perfectionistic,” she says, but there’s “contempt and scorn for the idea that kids who have it all might be hurting.”
For many of these young people, the biggest single stressor is that they “never get to the point where they can say, ‘I’ve done enough, and now I can stop,’ ” Luthar says. “There’s always one more activity, one more A.P. class, one more thing to do in order to get into a top college. Kids have a sense that they’re not measuring up. The pressure is relentless and getting worse.”
Denizet-Lewis goes on to write that many people assume teens feel this stress because of helicopter parents who do too much for their kids. But that assumption may be faulty. Some psychologists are saying the adolescents they see are driving themselves crazy, and many parents don’t know how to help. Denizet-Lewis writes about one teen, Jillian, whose mother struggled with how to treat her:
“The million-dollar question of raising an anxious child is: When is pushing her going to help because she has to face her fears, and when is it going to make the situation worse and she’s going to have a panic attack?” Allison told me. “I feel like I made the wrong decision many times, and it destroyed my confidence as a mother.”
Young people like those profiled in Denizet-Lewis’ article are struggling mightily against their own worst instincts, but perhaps the larger question here is about the messages they are receiving from the world around them. How can educators and parents help kids understand there’s more than one “right” path and multiple ways of being successful in the world?
Alarmed, Jake’s parents sent him to his primary-care physician, who prescribed Prozac, an antidepressant often given to anxious teenagers. It was the first of many medications that Jake, who asked that his last name not be used, would try over the next year. But none seemed to work – and some made a bad situation worse.