A recent article in the New York Times magazine highlights the dilemma facing parents, therapists, and schools: Does helping anxious teenagers mean protecting them from their fears, or pushing them to face those same fears? School counselor Amy Blackburn shares insights from Lynn Lyons, a nationally recognized speaker, author and psychotherapist, who will speak to Winsor parents in February after working with faculty this summer.
A recent article in the New York Times magazine highlights the dilemma facing parents, therapists, and schools: Does helping anxious teenagers mean protecting them from their fears, or pushing them to face those same fears?
Anxiety is the most common mental health disorder in the U.S., affecting about one-third of both adolescents and adults. Due to the reality that we all experience anxiety to a certain degree, a more serious condition can be easily dismissed or overlooked.
This coming February, Winsor parents will get to hear firsthand from one of the experts featured in the article, Lynn Lyons, a nationally recognized speaker, author and psychotherapist who specializes in the treatment of anxious children and their parents. She also visited Winsor just before the beginning of the new school year to talk to all faculty and staff about teenagers and their anxiety, and the best ways for us to help our students manage the many challenges life presents in 2017, both in and out of school. She said that anxiety and depression are closely linked and many researchers are now asking if they should continue to be treated separately.
When addressing anxiety and depression in children, Ms. Lyons believes there is too much focus on eliminating symptoms and interventions that focus on why we feel anxious, rather than on how to move through and manage it. This results in missed opportunities to shift frameworks and introduce new perspectives, and may even increase anxiety over time.
At Winsor, we are well aware that many of our students experience anxiety, and mirroring a trend in the wider world of schools, we have seen an increase in severely anxious students. School expectations, family expectations, and student expectations are very high, and students can become perfectionistic.
For many young people today, as observed nationally, the biggest single stressor is that they "never get to the point where they can say 'I've done enough, and now I can stop.' There's always one more activity, one more AP class, one more thing to do in order to get into a top college. The pressure is relentless and getting worse." (Denizet-Lewis, 2017)
Here at Winsor, we face the same questions as schools across the country. How can we convince our students that they are "doing enough," and also teach them better coping strategies for the times when things don't go the way they want? In a recent NPR interview, Lynn Lyons stated that "young people are not happily, flexibly, and emotionally equipped" and she suggests that school and home will be better for them when they can:
- think and respond with flexibility, rather than rigidity (growth mindset vs. fixed mindset);
- compartmentalize worries, rather than globalizing them ("I let in one goal, I didn't lose the game");
- use problem-solving, rather than reacting impulsively and emotionally ("I will talk to my teacher about how to better prepare");
- access internal resources, and be active rather than passive ("I will take a deep breath and talk with someone about this");
- connect/disconnect as needed (That text can wait);
- and evaluate and manage emotions (Just because you think it/feel it doesn't make it true!).
So, the answer to the question as to whether we should be protecting our teenagers or pushing them to face their fears, is - both. But just as we would never push someone unprepared into a deep pool who doesn't know how to swim, we don't push teenagers toward their anxiety without appropriate supports in place.
The world has always been scary; it's not more terrible or violent now, but perhaps the constant amplification of the world's troubles through teenagers' almost constant connection to streaming sources of information, makes it feel that much scarier.
Countering anxiety demands certainty and comfort, and our kids need to learn the skills of tolerating a certain level of uncertainty and discomfort, and we, the adults in their lives, need to provide support and guidance so that anxiety does not become debilitating.