Today’s Jewish teens face intense pressure to succeed. These are difficult times to be a child or adolescent as the pressures around growing and claiming an identity are sometimes overwhelming.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 31 percent of 13- to 18-year-olds have an anxiety disorder, and just under 8 percent have a severe anxiety disorder.
The issues contributing to the rise in anxiety are many and complex. As the director of clinical services at JF&CS, I can absolutely attest to the fact that we are seeing more and more kids that present with symptoms consistent with anxiety. These include excessive worry, increased fears, social discomfort and disturbed eating and sleeping.
Of course there are the “typical” stressors of adolescence that include both academic and social stress, but even these are more complex. The academic rigor that kids experience today can be overwhelming, and the competition to achieve high status along with the push to claim an identity can actually stifle teens’ desires to find their passion. It is not uncommon to talk with elementary age children who are already feeling the need to build their resumes so that they will be appealing to their school of choice. College admissions and the cost of higher education are absolutely factors that contribute to an increase in stress and anxiety.
Our children are also faced with a new reality that many of us never had to address when we were their age. Teens are keenly aware of what is happening in society and are deeply impacted by the fearmongering that fills our news cycles every single day. The constant pressures of social media, the barrage of news about gun violence in schools, celebrity suicides, and fears of anti-Semitism have become part of the daily routine and are difficult to escape. Given the rise of violence in and around schools, many teens question their safety and live in fear of something happening to them or their loved ones.
This deluge contributes to the rise of anxiety in teenagers. That anxiety, left unchecked, can lead to depression, feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, and escape via drugs and alcohol. The impact of these symptoms is that kids feel less confident, less secure in their interactions with others, and less confidence in their own abilities to experience success. Oftentimes these fears and concerns, while real, are not rational; however, this does not lessen the impact.
Social Media Effects
Socially, teens strive to both find themselves and establish relationships with others with whom they connect. Social status and connectedness are hallmarks of the adolescent struggle, and the prevalence of social media compounds the issue. Whether it is cyber-bullying, the lack of privacy or trying to keep up with the Joneses – or Kardashians – the impact of social media and the related pressure can be extremely damaging.
Teens, developmentally, believe everyone is looking at them and judging them, and social media makes this even more real. Teens have a lack of awareness of when things should be private. They think they are telling their best friend something, and that friend turns on them and suddenly that picture goes viral and is everywhere. The teen’s deepest fears and/or insecurities are on display for all to see, and the effects can be devastating.
It is important for parents to talk to their kids about privacy. They need to discuss the consequences of sharing too much information. Parents should promote real-world relationships, person-to-person, away from screens.
Communication is important. While there is a natural and appropriate shift to their peers, teens need to know that their parents are present and engaged in their lives. Finding time to connect and talk is essential, and our teens want empathy and understanding, even though they don’t always express that. The simple act of asking, “How are you?” and meaning it, not while you’re looking at your screen or walking past, can be tremendously powerful.
As parents and adults who care about children and teens, we are not immune to the pressures that they experience, and we have to remember to draw boundaries and not project our own fears and insecurities onto our children. Similar to the instructions given by flight attendants, parents must remember to put on their own oxygen masks first. Self-care and establishing your own supports and networks are crucial, as it is very easy to get caught up in the drama of your child’s life.
Caregivers who are looking for ways to spot warning signs in their children may find the following list helpful.
Signs of Anxiety
- Difficulty sleeping or needing a lot more sleep
- Changes in eating habits
- Rapid heartbeat, sweaty palms, shortness of breath
- Difficulty focusing on and finishing work
- Constant worrying, “what if” scenarios
- Increased isolation
- Changes in friendships
- Crying fits
Learning to Handle Stress
It is important for parents to give their teens coping techniques to deal with the added stress of tests, projects and social issues. Learning to manage that stress can help throughout our lives.
Adults should “model for teens how they experience and manage stress; talk about strategies they use that help them,” said Lori Wilson, a clinical psychologist at JF&CS who conducts psycho-educational testing.
Working with a therapist can help teens discover which strategies work best: writing in a journal, running, meditation, yoga, deep breathing, and playing sports are all stress-management techniques that can help teens get through difficult times.
When to Get Help
If your teen is having difficulty managing stress, or could use some help learning coping techniques, call JF&CS. Our therapists can help your teen work through anxiety issues and develop their own self-help techniques. JF&CS offers a variety of clinical options, including individual and family counseling, group therapy, expressive therapy using art and yoga, and the HAMSA (Helping Atlantans Manage Substance Abuse) program for teens that may be struggling with addiction.
Teen and parenting groups will be starting soon for the fall to help families with common issues in a group atmosphere. Therapy groups can be very helpful because we learn that many others are dealing with the same issues.
In addition, for children struggling in school, we offer psycho-educational testing that can uncover learning challenges that may be holding them back academically, and give them the support to thrive. For more information, call 770-677-9474 or visit www.jfcsatl.org/counseling.