By Kathryn Kehoe-Biggs, LCSW, PHD
Anxiety is the most common mental illness and affects 25 percent of teens and is the main reason college students seek counseling services, however it is impossible to pin point the variables responsible for the increase. In fact, focusing on what or who is to blame actually increases stress, placing attention on societal changes, which lay just outside of reach. The stream of information coming at young people through mobile devices is often blamed. But, for teens technology just is it is not viewed as a choice. This is comparable to telling a person who is over weight to simply, stop eating. Research shows that crash diets do not work and frequently result in gaining more weight once stopped. Similarly, complete restriction of cell use as punishment for poor grades or behavior may work in the short run, however, it does not address the coping skills needed to integrate technology into life. When fear instead of logic and morality drives the conversion battle lines may be drawn. For adolescents technology is like food, it is needed for survival, but developing a healthy, balanced relationship with it can be difficult. Challenging teens to tell you about their approach to this balance may reveal that this concept has never entered their mind. The next step is to remind them that cell phones are human made objects, which exist to serve humanity. Humans are the ‘boss’ not the cell phone. Simply reacting to information coming out without a logical and moral approach can result in feeling powerless and even victimized by this inanimate object .
Fear is often associated with anxiety. However fear is a feeling, which is not ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Fear just ‘is’. Helping your teen approach fear without judgment will lighten up the conversation. For example, when fear is paired with logic and morality it can result in positive actions and stress reduction. Assigning a designated driver, fearing the dangers associated with driving under the influence is an ethical and sensible action. In contrast, when fear is the ONLY catalyst for action it can restrict positive risks, such as applying for a job, going to school or asking for help when under stress. Talking with your teen about their moral compass may reveal that it is different from yours, but the goal is to get them to start to think about their actions. In the end, how they are living their lives should be logical to them instead of a series of impulsive reactions.
Stepping back and looking at anxiety logically it is clear that it presents differently depending on the person. For example, the straight A student who speaks in class and is on the debate team may also express stress about going to school. This child’s anxiety may be associated with the unstructured social environment of a school cafeteria or the stress of having to meet expectations. Active listening is the key to uncovering the root. Assumptions cloud perspective and may inhibit communication’s flow. Instead of playing the blame game, listen with a beginners mind, calmly teasing out which stressor your teen connects with anxiety. Understanding is the first step toward managing. These conversations will slowly reveal the place where anxiety ‘lives and grows’ ..
Finally, anxiety about the increase in anxiety feeds the problem. Yes, anxiety is on the rise, it is a fact. As parents we may WISH there where no cell phones and believe children SHOULD be sheltered from the constant stream of information or pressure to succeed from peers, the educational system and society, but for better or worse that is what IS happening. Anxiety ‘lives and thrives’ in the past and future. Focusing on “I wish I did…” I should have done…” or “I hope….” and “What if…” feeds anxiety allowing it the ‘nutrients’ needed to grow and thrive, while slowing taking up cognitive space. It can seep into feelings, altering the information taken in through a lens clouded by doom and regret. Remember, fearing and blaming, and wishing the ever-changing world would stop moving so fast only feeds the stress. As parents we need to lead by example, focusing on the way the world is instead of the way we want it to be. Helping our children make healthy choices about their relationship with technology, peers, school work and other activities based on their individual ability to mange stress is the most logical use of time and energy.
Dr. Kehoe-Biggs is a psychotherapist with a private practice in Pelham, NY