Why Are So Many Of Our Kids Anxious And Depressed?

When comparing the survey results posted by the American College Health Association Fall 2017 to those from Fall 2011, it appears that rates of anxiety have doubled, and rates of depression have risen by 50% during that period. These numbers are alarming, and so it begs the question: Why has anxiety and depression become such a pervasive problem. We know that most emotional difficulties, if they are going to occur tend to manifest in early adulthood, which is just around the time that these young adults are leaving for college. I believe that young adults today are more emotionally vulnerable now than ever before because of a weakened emotional core that cannot easily withstand the stress associated with the demands and challenges of this new stage of development. And I believe there are several reasons for this phenomenon: social media, the increased competitiveness of college admissions, bullying especially cyber-bullying, and the need for two income families.

Social Media

There already exists a natural impulse for people to make comparisons in order to evaluate themselves. The problem, however, with comparison making is that using another person, as a yardstick for self-evaluation, will always place someone on the deficient end of the comparison. The purpose of social media is already to showcase and so it is automatic when on these platforms to make comparisons, and because what we see is only a moment in time of a person’s life, carefully selected to project an ideal rather than a true reflection of a real life with ups and downs, and imperfect moments, we usually end up feeling bad about who we are and our lives. We know that our lives are not perfect and that we often feel insecure and filled with self-doubt. We know that we are not always happy and sometimes we feel sad, anxious, and lonely. When we see the pictures however posted on social media we are easily fooled into believing that other people are always more than what we are; they are more confident, and more content, they have closer friends and more loving families, and in fact, they appear to have perfect lives and so we believe there must be something wrong with us.

Once this feeling of deficiency is internalized, it creates an internal belief of not being “good enough”, and now everything is seen through a filter of failure and inadequacy. What this means is that we see ourselves as being a disappointment and therefore imagine that others see us in the same way. In addition, if everything is seen through a filter of inadequacy then it is easy to experience others in a negative way, and conclude that people are untrustworthy and unreliable, and that they will ultimately fail us. It is therefore more helpful to spend less time on social media and invest more time in being productive, engaging in personal development, and interacting with real and not virtual friends.

Increased competitiveness of college admissions

Not all cultures value college education equally. I grew up in a culture that recognized the necessity of becoming self-sufficient but college wasn’t necessarily the only path, and in fact, vocations were equally as valued. However, in this culture it is different and parents start thinking about this almost immediately after their children are born. They think about how they can best prepare and help their children become impressive enough to gain admissions into the most prestigious colleges, and because “good” parents are devoted, they are willing to do whatever it takes to achieve this. They want to give their children a competitive edge by either finding that one thing in which their child can excel and distinguish him or herself above the rest or creating a child that is simply impressive in their accumulated accomplishments. Unfortunately, we undermine our children’s confidence and competence in the process by doing too much for them, and at the same time also silently convey the message that accomplishments are necessary to be valued, and that they are only important to us if they achieve. Of course, this mostly isn’t the intended message but all actions communicate messages and this is how children often assign meaning to our focus and, often-inflated praise of their achievements. They may come to equate being a worthwhile and desirable human being as needing to be the “best”, and if not then they are inferior.

I also believe a generational ‘Ziegeist’ is also a factor at play. Children, for example, who were members of Generation X were known as “latch key” kids and were called this because of the prevalence of both parents being in the workforce or the prevalence of divorce. These kids had to take care of themselves because parents were absent, and at this time there weren’t a lot of options for childcare outside of the house. It is possible that these children may have felt unconsciously or even consciously resentful and questioned whether or not they were important to their parents. The up side is that they were a generation however that learned to be independent and self-reliant. They didn’t turn to or expect their parents to be there to problem-solve or manage their lives. They became confident that they could sort things out, handle adversity, and find solutions to problems.

This current generation, the ‘Millennials’, have unfortunately been robbed of that experience because we, the ‘Gen Xer’s’ were so concerned that a misstep would ruin our children’s chances of getting into the most coveted universities that we didn’t allow our children to make mistakes or let them suffer the natural consequences of their actions, which would have made them more resilient to adversity. We were reluctant to let our children problem solve because we couldn’t risk that the outcome would not successful. We couldn’t take the chance that forgetting a homework assignment at home would reduce their grade, and so we rushed to school to drop it off because anything other than an ‘A’ we feared would jeopardize their chances of getting into the ‘best’ universities. We were even willing to arrange accommodations on tests even if our children didn’t really need them, just to guarantee a higher score. Unfortunately, now, when our kids go off to college, they don’t feel competent; they are already filled with self-doubt and question whether or not they can succeed. Knowing that they may have gained admission to college not entirely on their own merit only exacerbates this feeling of being an imposter, which further undermines their self-esteem. It creates an ever-present anxiety that they will not succeed and then be exposed for not being ‘smart enough’ to be there.

Bullying

Bullying has always been an issue but it appears that since 2005 those who have reported being bullied increased by almost 25%. Perhaps the reason for this is that it is easier to humiliate and cause another human being distress when you don’t have to look them in the eye. Using the Internet as a bully platform creates a distance and an immediacy that also makes it easier to act impulsively without considering the consequences. In addition, the humiliation felt from the old fashioned type of bullying was restricted to those that witnessed the event or were closely associated to those who perpetrated or witnessed the event. With the Internet however, the humiliation is magnified because it can’t be contained but rather spreads like wild fire and causes much destruction.

Two Income Households

It is not just that it is more expensive to live today that it was before, which necessitates both parents often working but rather it is also that parents want to provide so much for their children that it requires that both parents must work. I spoke earlier about the competitiveness of college admissions and the desire to give children a competitive edge and to distinguish them selves as being better than others. This is a costly goal. It is expensive to pay for dance class, hockey equipment and tennis lessons; to learn to play the piano, the violin, and cello or to pay for ACT and SAT tutors, boot camps and college counselors. Parents are so busy providing for their children that they often don’t get to just spend time and appreciate being with their children, and children don’t get to spend time and enjoy being appreciated by their parents.

In life, we all look to understand and make sense of things that happen to us. We all process information differently and therefore assign different meanings to similar events. Children also have unsophisticated cognitive reasoning abilities and so draw simple cause and effect conclusions. They often believe that things that happen to them or around them are because of them. What this means is that they often conclude that if they are bullied, or have parent’s that are absent, that they are lacking in some fundamental way. When a belief of not being “good enough” is internalized everything is seen through this filter of inadequacy and failure. Since one of the most common cognitive biases from which we all suffer is a confirmation bias. We will always find evidence to confirm what we believe by ignoring any informing that would challenge our beliefs, and if a situation is ambiguous or confusing, we will unconsciously manipulate the information to conform to our existing belief.

These reasons may explain why anxiety and depression is increasing, and why when young adults go off to college emotional disorders are becoming so prevalent. These young adults have not internalized self-worth and since this is the foundation on which self-esteem is built, if it is not solid then the self-esteem won’t be solid either. It will be susceptible to external events, and since a belief of defectiveness already exists, all negative experiences, even those that are beyond their control are seen as confirmation of their inadequacy. Going off to college is a new experience, and so stress and moments of self-doubt are inevitable. However when these feelings are experienced today, because of this fundamental insecurity, all positive self-regard is lost and the ego or self-esteem is devastated.

Solution

In order to strengthen the emotional core of young adults today so that they are able to withstand the stress of this new stage of development, I believe they must understand the concepts of self-worth and self-esteem and recognize whether or not they are afflicted with low self-worth. They need to recognize that having feelings of inadequacy is not evidence of being inadequate, it is just a feeling drawn from the false conclusions of their negative experiences. The reason acknowledgment is important is twofold: It is necessary to dis-identify from the feeling of failure and secondly, to understand that when low self-worth is present, negative thinking patterns and self-defeating behaviors will also be present.

If we can therefore identify our negative thoughts and destructive behaviors then we can replace them with more realistic and reasonable ones that don’t continue to reinforce low self-worth.

To learn more on how to begin to recover from low self worth and emotionally prepare for adulthood I have created a free program, www.preparetoleavethenest.com, on emotional preparation for adulthood and on my blog are articles pertaining to this topic and podcasts on emotional healing.

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