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

By Robin Roberts, Dr. Robin Berman, and Susan Resko

Despite a torrential downpour, 260 people came out for The Josselyn Center’s 11th Annual Spring Luncheon to support The Josselyn Center’s Camp Neeka and Children’s Services. Dr. Robin Berman, child psychiatrist and Associate Professor of the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA (and a New Trier graduate!), spoke to the audience as featured guest.  Dr. Berman was hilarious, shared so many relatable stories, and had such good advice that we wanted to share it with you.

A recent Pew Research Survey of almost 1,000 teens revealed that anxiety and depression are on the rise among youth in America.  Of teens, 7 in 10 see mental health problem as their top concern. Dr. Berman discussed three factors that are contributing to this rise: “uber parenting,” over use of technology, and parental loss of power. Equally important, she shared what we can do to change the trend.

What is anxiety and why do we experience it?  Anxiety emanates from our very basic fight or flight instinct. If you hear a startling noise, your heart may start racing, and you might check the door locks.  But our brains have an “off switch” through which the intellect kicks in and says “Ahh, it’s just thunder.”  Your pulse returns to normal. In those who experience an anxiety disorder, the off switch isn’t working properly, and they can’t escape the fight or flight state.  

Therapy can help re-wire this distorted thinking loop.  The best treatment for anxiety is a combination of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT). Exposure therapy involves exposure to what is causing anxiety in small amounts, so the individual can develop tolerance.   

Today's style of “uber” parenting contributes to heightened anxiety among young people.  Parents in previous generations let their kids play outside and told them, “Come home by dark.”  Today, parents track their kids on apps, and kids are perpetually supervised (every minute!).  Working mothers are now logging MORE time with their kids than those who didn’t work two generations ago.  The recent college admissions cheating scandal is the ultimate example of uber parenting gone terribly wrong.  It says, “Darling, you are not smart enough nor capable enough to take the SAT by yourself, so I’m going to fix it for you by cheating.” 

This uber parenting is contributing to a generation of frail children who never develop distress tolerance. If you are always managing your child’s life, they will never feel uncomfortable nor have the skills to cope with failure on a small scale.  When they go to college, they won't have the skills to handle the inevitable bumps in the road. We’ve raised a generation of hot house orchids who can only survive in perfectly cultivated conditions. 

The meta message of this uber parenting is, “Honey, you can’t do it on your own – you need me to snow plow” which ultimately undermines development of self-esteem. Kids need to feel discomfort over small things.  It’s that small discomfort that triggers the regulator to handle distress.  If you never feel discomfort, the anxiety off-switch doesn’t develop.  We raised a fragile generation of teens and young adults, who are content to be the passenger not the driver, because fragile kids are becoming risk adverse.  (Another example: the trend toward delaying applications for teen driver’s licenses; teens delay getting their driver’s license and are content to let their parents drive, or take Uber or Lift, because they are uncomfortable with the risk.)

Overuse of electronics also contributes to increased rates of anxiety. Dr. Berman predicts that we will look back at this time when we allowed children so much screen time and ask, “what were we thinking”?  She analogized this era of child electronics use to the era when we thought it was cool to smoke. When we saw black smoker’s lung and other deadly health effects of smoking, we said, “aha – of course it’s unhealthy.”  We need to say the same thing about children’s and teen’s overuse of electronics.

Video game playing (even non-violent ones) can trigger the addictive part of the brain in order to keep the child playing to get to the next level.  Social media is also harmful.  Dr. Berman shared that our kids experience RFOMO (a real fear of missing out), since birthday parties and other invitation-only events are plastered on Facebook and Instagram. Kids know real time who got what invitation, and who was left out, and of course, that produces anxiety. 

Finally, parents have lost their power and control. While previous generations’ authoritarian parenting style included the use of shaming and spanking, which wasn’t good, the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. Children are anxious because they are the ones who are in charge, at an age when they are not capable. Children need a firm sense of authority and boundaries to feel safe.   

Mealtime is an excellent time to set limits and boundaries. Children have become mini dictators and parents have become personal concierges.  What do you want?  How?  When? Can I fix that differently?  Children and teens need boundaries.  The most powerful thing parents can do it to help their children is to not cater to them.

What can we do, and is it too late?  No! Parents are human and well meaning, but it’s okay to say, “I made a bad call” and, “I'm going to change how we do things moving forward,” Dr. Berman shared.  Listen to your children’s troubles, but be careful of fixing things for them. Phrases like “tell me about it,” and “I understand, that must feel terrible” are the best responses to kids’ discomfort.  After listening and validating their feelings, express “I know you’ll be figure it out and you will be okay.  What do you think you should do?” Kids need to be heard and understood, and the parent can express confidence in their child's problem-solving skills. Give your kids your faith and confidence in themselves, stop making their paths easy, and tell them, “you’ve got this.”  A good parent works themselves out of a job.  Kids want to be understood, not fixed.

We learned so much from Dr. Berman, and we're grateful for these lessons.

(Authors’ note: So often, parents, especially mothers, have been blamed for their children’s mental health issues. Some damaging and erroneous mother-blaming theories include “schizophrenogenic mothers” who were blamed for their child’s schizophrenia in the 1930s, or “refrigerator mothers” were theorized to cause their child’s autism in the 1950s. Dr. Berman was careful not to blame the mom for the child’s anxiety and depression, but to offer helpful tips and encouragement to counter some cultural and generational practices which are not helping our children. Here is a good clip which summarizes Dr. Berman’s helpful and hopeful advice.)

 

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