Jessica Borelli,Ph.D. ( director of the UCI THRIVE Lab) is a researcher whose work I admire. She studies the links between close relationships and health. As she is an expert on this subject, I asked her to comment on a recent article in the NYT about the increase in serious anxiety amongst teens.
Here is what she has to say.
“The saddest part of this article for me was how alone the teens interviewed for the story felt. This isolation is probably partly the result of the intense focus that anxiety and depression seem to command — this is a self-focus that is nothing like grandiosity or egocentricity, but rather a loathing self-focus that views all of one’s own real and imagined flaws magnified by a factor of 500. This hyper-focus on the self deprives the individual of so much, including a broader perspective on their problems and also an awareness that others also struggle and that they are not alone. In my work with anxious youth, I’ve also found that it means a lack of social connections, particularly the types of connections in which teens reveal these ‘shameful’ parts of themselves. This is truly unfortunate because the social connections have the potential to ameliorate the shame living at the core of the anxiety, which at times can resolve the problem.”
Some ways to translate her wise comments into something helpful to do: It is a complex problem. There are no sure fixes. As a reflective parent here are some ideas to consider that can help to reduce the pressure, the aloneness and the shame.
- Communicate acceptance: that no one is perfect; it is ok to not always get A’s or be the best.
- Counteract disaster thinking: that even if your child does not do as well as hoped, whether in school, sports or with a friend, that life is not ruined.
- Empathize with their upset, but role model optimism: that set backs and difficulties can be managed and dealt with in a positive way.
- Do what you can to encourage talking about it, not to keep it private. It is good for them to talk with you, so certainly always be available and to listen without judgement. Kids often want to talk at the most inopportune times, late at night, just when you are leaving to go for a run or have lunch with a friend, or even when you are about to go to work. Take the time when they offer it to you- even if it is not convenient. It pays off in the end.
- But also, when they are teens they need to talk with their friends. Even as you try and limit social media, you still want to encourage them to talk about their pressures and self-criticisms with their friends. Friends are usually way more accepting and supportive of them, than they are of themselves.