I recently read a worrisome article in The New York Times Magazine about the growing number of young people in America suffering from anxiety. The piece, by Benoit Denizet-Lewis and entitled The Kids Who Can’t, tells the story of several individuals struggling to cope with this phenomenon, and the diverse ways in which they’re responding to it.
As someone who devoted my entire professional career to working with kids in an education environment, the concept of teenage and pre-adolescent anxiety is certainly not something new to me. However, what’s different today is the sheer magnitude of the problem and the damage it is inflicting on young people’s sense of self-worth, relationships, academic success, life dreams, and overall mental health.
In my most recent Musical Blog, I highlighted the hit song, “The Sound of Silence,” by Simon and Garfunkel, a part of the soundtrack to The Graduate. The movie begins with Ben, the main character, on display for his parents’ friends at a graduation party held in his honor. Though the movie is 50 years old, many aspects of Ben’s life are similar to statements and feelings expressed by Jake and Jillian, two students featured in The New York Times article. Living up to high expectations of parents and friends, as well as fulfilling academic and professional ambitions, are stressors that have been prevalent in our society for years.
Fast forward to the present, when I recently visited with a friend of mine in his 40s. I inquired about his children and he informed me they were doing very well. His 9-year-old daughter is taking dance, art, music and Chinese lessons in addition to attending a wonderful private school. “She’s doing great,” he said with a huge, proud grin across his face. “Her mother spends most of her time after my daughter gets out of school taking her to lessons and preparing for the next day.” “And the baby?” I inquired. “Oh, he’s doing great too. He goes to the lessons with them and has a ball playing with the other little ones.”
During my career as a public-school superintendent, I was always extremely proud of our especially supportive and involved parent group. We also prided ourselves on the vast array of extra-curricular activities available to our students. However, I eventually came to wonder if too many after-school activities plus lofty parental expectations was placing unhealthy pressures on children. I began asking myself, “when do our children get the opportunity to simply be kids?”
As a teacher, administrator, and university professor for more than 40 years, it seems to me that high personal goals and academic expectations are just part of the problem. Today’s teenagers and young adults also face demands imposed by a fast-moving society and the tyranny of social media. Keeping up with what’s cool among peers, being the best you can be and living up to the unrealistic expectations society imposes can eventually bend or even break the strongest person’s resolve.
In response, students are retreating into the safety of their beds. Some self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. Some develop eating disorders or pursue risky sexual behaviors. Others, seek “safe spaces” in an academic setting, in which painful ideas are kept at bay, or look for comfort in therapy dogs, Play-Doh or video games as stress relievers around exam time. Some may become unsure of who they are and what they want from life. They wonder if, and where, they will ever fit in.
I was once in a similar place. As a teenager, I coped with the devastating loss of my father by drinking to drown my sadness and mask my depression. Later, as a young woman, my addictive behavior returned in the form of cutting, binging and purging. For me, acting out of desperation felt better than doing nothing. Doing nothing meant giving up; not finding a way to feel better. I realize these were dangerous behaviors, and I am not recommending or defending them. I’m simply explaining that they made me feel like I was “doing something” to save my life.
As a professional, I always sought to operate and teach in schools that felt safe, encouraging and yet challenging, but not overwhelming. The problem is that outside of our schools and workplaces, we’ve created a corrosive culture marked by continuous public hostility, divisive behavior and negative role models.
It seems to me that the day students can no longer physically and mentally prepare themselves to get out of bed because the world they face overwhelms them, is the day that each of us must look in the mirror and evaluate our own role in creating this issue. By examining our own behavior, perhaps we can begin to build a society that fosters stability, love and appreciation for those close to us, and mutual respect for those around us with diverse points of view.
© Tyra Manning 2017