As many of you know, we are in the midst of a youth mental health crisis, especially among our teenagers. Depression and anxiety were trending up for children before the pandemic and rates accelerated along with COVID-19.
So here is the hard part – if we know that most of our kids are struggling it means that collectively we, as parents and a society, need to do something differently.
Here is my perspective, as a child psychologist AND a parent, about some important factors that are at play for teens right now and what we can actually do about it.
First, we are social animals. It is literally in our DNA to look around, observe what other members of our tribe are doing, and dutifully follow suit. Don’t believe me? If you were a hunter and gatherer and you noticed that your peers felt anxious or scared and they hid, you would ‘dive into the bushes’ too, it’s instinctual. Because if you didn’t, you’d probably get eaten by a tiger and those protective genes wouldn’t be passed on. I know this example is extreme but peer pressure (positive or negative), social norms, and groupthink are all other words for this cultural phenomenon…we mostly do what the folks we know do.
And this is especially true for teenagers. It is their JOB (or “primary developmental task” if we want to get serious) to separate from their family and independently enter society. Their pull towards social norms, “the unwritten rules that define acceptable and appropriate behavior within a group and guide human behavior,” is even stronger than the pull towards the norm that adults feel. Different groups may have different norms (think distinct groups of kids, varied attitudes and customs across the world), and those groups dictate what our teens care about, think about, feel, wear, say… and it’s demonstrated in the amount of time they spend on screens, how much they exercise, their sleeping habits, what they eat… all of the things!
But here is where it gets tricky: if there is a mental health crisis among teens right now and they are being dragged and pulled towards the social norm, then more and more of them are going to struggle. As a therapist I see this day in and day out– kids come into a session and discuss something that their friends are doing, think that they must fall in line and do it too, and as a direct result they develop an unhealthy thought pattern or behavior and ‘jump into the bushes’ like their friends. For example, a teenage girl worries constantly about her developing body, she regularly observes a member of her friend group struggling with disordered eating in the lunchroom and on social media, and in a shockingly short period of time she begins to think about food and her body the same way. Multiply this by eight friends and now we have a large group of girls struggling with disordered eating and body image. You can swap disordered eating for perfectionism in the classroom (leading to anxiety), time spent playing video games (depression), risky behaviors (drug addiction), or intimate kindness (prosocial behavior).
For all the parents out there, I am not saying anything new here. You all know it, see it, feel it, and struggle with it. Because we all know that telling a teenager, “Just because your friends are doing it doesn’t mean that YOU have to!” has almost never worked.
The obvious answer is to lead by example ourselves. Start turning away from the social norms that we ‘jump into the bushes’ for and that where we can begin to support our teens’ mental health. We need to stop over-activitying our kids, worry less about their academic load as they look at colleges, figure out what to do about social media, and allow our kids to be late for school because we all know they need sleep, nutritious food, and exercise in the morning in order to thrive.
And this is where the answer, which is so obvious, feels almost impossible. The stakes for teenagers in this country right now are so high that it seems like taking one small, step away from the norm is going to ruin their chance at what we consider “a good life.”
Personally, I’m not raising a teenager yet (Cole turns 12 in March!), but I already see the record playing on a loop in my head… “If he doesn’t take this class then he will be behind his peers then he won’t get into a good college and then he is doomed. Therefore, he must take all the classes and more.” Even if I don’t go to the extreme about it, I know this voice will be in my head on the little things. It’s inevitable because that voice has always been in my head.
And for you readers, I suspect the same perfectionistic, people-pleasing, high achieving voice is in there for you, too. You see something similar between us and, because we are social animals, you want to know more about what I’m thinking and doing. Just like our teens!
Moreover, for most of us, our overall success in the grand scheme of life has been the direct result of our ability to excel within the social norms of our adolescence and early adulthood. But in 2023??? The very thing that got us where we are is making it harder to stay here…. and even harder on our kids.
So here’s my strategy, and I’ve thought long and hard about it… I’m leaning into my social nature. I know who I am and have come to terms with the fact that I will always be looking at people around me and seeing what they are doing. It is my strength and honestly, if I don’t jump into the bushes with others, I might die.
But I’m jumping into a different set of bushes, ya’ll. I am working SO HARD to change the norms by talking, listening, writing, podcasting, thinking, problem-solving, brainstorming… and I have a great group of friends, colleagues, and leaders who are doing this work with me. Because we all know that the only way through this crisis is to create a large social shift in how we live and how we expect our teenagers to live and, in turn, change the way they feel.
So stay tuned for some concrete examples of shifts we can make. They will be coming. Because none of us want our kids to struggle and the only way to prevent it is to jump into that set of bushes behind the one in front of our face. And then tell people about it, invite our friends, and support the folks in there with us. Join me!!!!!
For more information on the teenage mental health crisis, subscribe to Active and Connected Families podcast. The episode released January 26, 2023 speaks specifically to this topic and discusses how medication falls into this idea!