Saturday, March 10, 2018

Why are our kids stressed out, and what can we do?

After another panicky call from our 22-year old daughter, we dutifully traipse along the 401 to see what we can do to help. We've had a few such calls, and to tell you the truth we are glad she feels that she can still reach out to us (even if there is not much we can actually do to help).
Now in her fifth and final year of a tough university course at a tough university, our daughter is a great kid (well, young woman I suppose, but occasionally still a needy kid). She is smart, serious, thoughtful; it's not clear how she could have turned out any better. But the stress of a coop program with very few recovery periods and no summer holidays, and the ultra-competitive environment in which she studies, mean that she, and many of her friends, are constantly teetering on the edge of being overwhelmed, constantly anxious and/or depressed.
It is so very different from my happy-go-lucky university experience in the late 1970s. But, even then, we had deadlines and stresses, we had jobs to find at the end, we had personal issues and lurid romantic breakups. And we seemed to cope, Certainly, it would not have occurred to my parents to ask about my mental wellbeing, and it would definitely not have occurred to me to ask them for help. I'm sure there were those that didn't cope - such things were not widely discussed then - but there did not seem to be the epidemic of anxiety and panic attacks that we see today.
So, what has changed? Yes, educational expectations and stresses are probably higher. Yes, modern parents are probably over-protective. But are our kids really more fragile, less resilient? Are they actually spoiled, coddled, helicoptered? Well, maybe our parental concern has done them a disservice, taken away some of their independence and their resilience. But, more and more, it is looking as though that is not the main problem. Increasingly, the problem is being diagnosed by psychologists as a function of the climate in which kids today are having to deal with the challenges of being teenagers and young adults.
We live in a time in which terrorist attacks and school shootings have become the norm. But, even more importantly, we live (and young people live to an even greater degree) in a time in which technology and social media have transformed the way we live our lives. School and university students are caught in a "cauldron of stimulus" they can't (or feel they can't) escape. When every personal problem, every fight with a professor, every anxiety about careers, is documented and dissected online, young people turn into little volcanoes of fragile psyches, which occasionally need to blow up to release the pressure. This is not just me, a curmudgeonly old codger, talking; this is the psychology profession, which often finds itself having to pick up the pieces after such blow-outs.
What to do? Not clear. Maybe this is just an evolutionary phase that humans need to work through. My daughter does go through periodic internet purges, where she will give up Facebook for a while, rarely long. And if she feels overwhelmed, and surrounded by many others feeling equally overwhelmed, she (luckily) will call us and we will deliver care packages of decadent but healthy foods, help clean up her cruelly-neglected room, take her to the butterfly conservatory or the cat café for a while, or out to dinner in a restaurant where student discounts don't apply. Maybe that is all we can do. And maybe that is enough.

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