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Dealing with the age of anxiety

Monday, October 28th, 2019
Ian Williamson

Dealing with the age of anxiety

From what we read and hear there is an epidemic of ‘anxiety’ amongst our teens. It would appear that they are anxious about everything in life. The latest article I read suggested that there is now something called climate change anxiety. How are we to understand all this ? And more importantly what can we, as parents, do about it ?

My understanding is that all the various anxieties have at their centre a fear of something awful happening in the future. This seems to vary from a fear of not having friends, not finding a partner in adulthood through to a fear of failing exams and a terror that the world will end soon. In psychology these kinds of worries are called ‘projections’. In other words something we fear inside us is ‘projected’ ( located in ) into an external person, event or situation. 

It’s my view that what is driving teen anxiety is the fear that they will be found out; that they will be found to be imposters in their own lives and they will be shamed and/or humiliated for it. Shame and humiliation, for a teen, is a fate worse than death. Remember that for today’s teens a misspeak, or a dress malfunction goes ‘global’ in seconds as photos and messages flash round the friendship group. They can become the focus of derision and persecution is seconds. 

In order to get a sense of where I am coming from its necessary to first understand an important part of the teen process. During these difficult years the teenage needs to develop a sense of identity, a sense who they really are, what they really think and what they really feel. Whilst this process continues into their 20’s and beyond it has to start during the 13-19 years. This is to some extent a process of trial and error, hence their intense and often passing passions for music, dress  politics and other activities. In order to start this process they need space to fully experience themselves. A caricature might be the teenage lying on their bed listening to Bob Dylan, thinking about the meaning of the world and their place in it. 

One of the problems they face now is that the world they inhabit is a world driven largely by excitements, distractions and instant gratifications. The result is this vital introspective, developmental process has been relegated to the margins of their lives. Today’s teens spend an inordinate amount of time on their phone or on their computers. What emerges from this experience, from a psychological point of view, is a sort of false self. Susan Greenfield, a neuro scientist in her book Mind Change, describes how teen’s online self is an idealised version of themselves, the kind of self they might imagine themselves to be. It is a long way from who they actually are. Teens also spend a lot a time on social media which is little more than a 24/7 evaluation site. Fear of missing out or feelings of personal inadequacy are the major drivers behind these experiences. As a consequence they spend more time identifying with an idealised notion of who they might want to be at the expense of understanding and developing who they really are.

As they move through the teen years reality checks start to impinge on their lives and test the authenticity of self. This is when the panic starts to kick in.  Will the confident academic, social and sexual self they have presented to others going to be outed as, at worst fake or at best, less than they really are? 

If we understand where this anxiety comes from, what can we do about it ? I’m of the opinion that in today’s world it is more important than ever that they take part in extra curricular activities with others. It doesn’t matter what it is but the ‘authenticity’ of the endeavour provides much needed solidity to their sense of self. Being together with others with an aim or a purpose provides a real life comparisons of the kind that social media never can.

Secondly you have to provide some respite for them from the incessant demands of phones/computer games etc. I have written and spoken about this many times before. I acknowledge that taking control of this is easier said than done but to my mind it is a non-negotiable part of parenting. They will argue till they are blue in the face that you are making their life a misery but you need to stay firm. The misery they are talking about is having to be alone with their thoughts and feelings. They need space and time to ‘experience’ themselves fully without the endless stimulation/distraction of modern teen life. A famous paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott commented that the capacity to be alone should be considered a vital component of psychological well being.  If they get to the later teen years and they don’t have some sense of who they are then ‘anxiety’ will kick in.