The Anxious Generations: Millennials, Centennials and the Anxiety They Face

By Robin Berman, MD, Robin Roberts, and Susan Resko

A recent Pew Research Survey of almost 1,000 teens revealed that Anxiety and Depression are both on the rise among America’s youth. Of today’s teens, 7 in 10 see mental health problems as their top concern. Dr. Berman discussed three factors contributing to this rise: “uber parenting,” overuse of technology, and parental loss of power. Equally important, she shared what we can do to change this unhealthy trend.
 
Why This Level of Worry?
 
Anxiety is a normal response to stress. Anxiety emanates from our primitive brain, which houses the flight or fight instinct. If you hear a startling noise, your heart may race and you may check the door locks. But our brains have an off switch where our higher cortical thinking brain kicks in and says, “Ahh it’s just thunder.” Your pulse returns to normal.
 
For those who experience an Anxiety Disorder, the off switch isn’t working properly—like an overactive alarm that doesn’t reset easily. Anxiety is fueled by inaccurate/catastrophic thinking that can interfere with a person’s normal function. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is the treatment of choice for Anxiety Disorders. One arm of CBT is exposure therapy, which involves exposure to what is causing the anxiety in small amounts, in order to develop distress tolerance. Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) involves learning distress tolerance and mindfulness to help lessen the anxiety.
 
Why Now?
 
Teens and young adults are experiencing higher levels of anxiety in part because of our well-intentioned current style of ”uber” parenting. Parents in previous generations had more tolerance for the normal foibles of childhood, and they gave their kids far more freedom. “Go outside and play, and come back when it is dark,” was a common mantra. But not today. Parents track their kids’ whereabouts on apps, and kids are perpetually supervised, leaving little space for trial and error learning or self-reliance. Working moms are now logging MORE time with their kids than those who didn’t work two generations ago. What’s more, there’s so much emphasis on performance, whether in sports, music, grades, or other areas of a young person’s life. The college admissions cheating scandal is the ultimate example of hyper parenting gone terribly wrong. It says, “Darling, you are not smart enough nor capable enough to take the SAT by yourself, so I am going to fix it for you by cheating.”
 
This hyper parenting is contributing to a generation of psychologically fragile children who don’t develop distress tolerance. Constantly rescuing our children interferes with their growth of distress tolerance and resiliency.
 
When kids go off to college they don’t have the skills to handle the inevitable bumps in the road. We are unintentionally fueling failure to launch, by keeping our kids dependent on us.  This resisting true independence is reflected in teens not wanting to race to the DMV on their 16th birthday to get their license. They instead are calling Lyft or Uber, climbing in the back seat, and letting GPS and the driver do the work. These kids are growing up comfortable being the passenger instead of the pilot. They get from place to place, but do it all without honing any skills that build independence.  
 
Overuse of electronics has also contributed to rise in anxiety. Dr. Berman predicts that we will look back at this time when we allowed our children so much screen time and ask, ”what were we thinking?” She analogized this era of child’s electronic use to the era when we thought it was cool to smoke. It was only a matter of time when we realized smoking had deadly effects. She believes with time electronics will come with warnings about addiction.
 
Excessive video game playing (even the non- violent ones) are designed to cause addiction. There are many studies showing a decrease in attention, empathy and increase in addiction with excessive electronic use. Electronics also tie children to their parents with an electronic leash, and to friends through social media. Constantly checking your Instagram/Snapchat trying to shore yourself up with likes also fuels anxiety. Dr. Berman said that our kids experience ROMA, the “reality of missing out,” when they see a birthday party they missed plastered on Facebook and Instagram. Retreating to home, away from the school social environment, no longer exists with social media, eroding the protective barrier of home and the outside world.
 
Finally, parents today seem skittish about asserting their parental power and assuming their rightful place as captain of the ship. The parental hierarchy has flip flopped, leaving kids with too much power. It is unsafe for a child to have that much power. Parents have become their kids’ personal concierge service. What do you want? How? When? Can I fix you something different? Parents seem to be tap dancing faster and faster to please their kids. This also contributes to anxiety, because kids are again not learning distress tolerance.  Children need clear rules, limits, and boundaries to feel safe.
 
What Next?

What can we do, and is it too late? “No! Parents are human and well meaning,” Dr. Berman said. “When there is rupture, follow it with repair. ‘I am so sorry I made a mistake, and I am going to change how we do things moving forward.’”
 
Listen to your children’s problems, but try not to fix them. (We don’t really have the power to fix them anyway.) Phrases like, “tell me more about it,” and ”I so understand how that must feel terrible,” with “I know you will figure it out,“ can be a balm to your child’s discomfort. Validating our children’s feelings is powerful. Everyone, children included, yearns to be seen, known, and truly understood. After hearing your child you can express confidence in their ability to work it out. Give your kids your faith and confidence in them.
 
A good parent should work themselves out of a job. And ultimately, all of us—kids included—want to be understood, not fixed. 

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