Roots of youth anxiety
From an article by the Institute of Family Studies
Joseph Davis is a Research Professor of Sociology at the University of Virginia. In his new book, Chemically Imbalanced, he shares his observations on the deeper roots of youth anxiety.
Professor Davis, with the help of his students, has interviewed many teens over the past decade. Anxiety in teens is on the rise and constitutes the leading mental health issue among American youth. Frequently-cited surveys show that the number of adolescents diagnosed with an anxiety disorder is growing and more and more are reporting feeling overwhelmed.
What’s going on?
Psychologists, who provide most of the commentary, put their finger on a number of social phenomena contributing to all the distress. The causes they mention include preoccupations with safety now common in schools, the constant and insidious comparisons kids make to each other on social media, the high stakes testing and college admissions process, and the “over-parented, over-trophied” ways in which so many children are raised. And the solutions they offer for high anxiety typically center on medical interventions, such as behavioral therapy or medication in the more severe cases and, generally, on the teaching of life skills that promote resilience, mindfulness, wellness, and the like.
Professor Davis feels these observations and recommendations certainly have merit but suggests that they do not go deep enough. They miss something fundamental about how childhood itself has been reconfigured and therefore what may be the greatest sources of unease.
In his experience of listening to young people talk about the pressures of their social worlds, what stands out is the way in which they are required to conceive of their lives. Much of what once constituted a way of life that was imparted to children—involving traditions and communal purpose, rites of passage and stable institutional reference points—has disappeared. Now, youth must define themselves and the shape of their lives—who they want to be and become—by primarily referencing their own preferences, desires, and choices. They are urged to project a future and treat themselves and the social world as though every constraint and limitation is essentially malleable. Obstacles are “variables” that can be moderated or eliminated by their hard work and creative efforts. And they are virtually compelled to represent this biographical project, this “story you choose to live in,” as one young man put it, to others—from peers to college admissions officers—in a way that demonstrates and confirms its upward progress and realization.
For young people, especially, enacting their life in terms of choice carries many risks. It creates a powerful and relentless type of ethical responsibility for their own well-being. They become their choices, so to speak, in the sense that their choices are taken—by themselves and by others—as the realization of their personal attributes, values, and priorities, as reflecting back upon them as the sort of person they are, and as demanding justification with reasons, motives, and aspirations. In the face of failure, confusion, or disapproval, decisions cannot be attributed to social obligations, institutional norms, or role requirements.
And, as young people are only too aware, this self-making project is not made in a vacuum. It is made in a context of status competition and constant comparison and in light of often unforgiving ideals and normative expectations. Among these expectations, the duty to stand out and to attain their distinctive potential are particularly fraught.
It is each person’s duty, as many kids report, to “live up to their potential.” The specific direction is theirs to determine by their own autonomous choices, but the injunction carries unmistakable expectations. Potential is a language of possibilities, of as yet unrealized and untapped abilities. It implies the overcoming of limitations and, whatever one’s achievements, a continuous demand for more. There is no blood test to determine if you are being “all you can be.” The only way to know is to prove to others and yourself that you can be a lot.
As has long been recognized, the inability to realize important goals produces high rates of distress. Being “impressive” and being the “best” at whatever one does are two such goals. They are not the only ones, and the list could go on to include other attributes and markers of a good self, from being smart and outgoing to being fit and athletic. Flipped around, the list is a chronicle of the ever-expanding ways to fall short, disappoint, and be inadequate. Almost inevitably, young people find themselves struggling to measure up.
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