Anxiety is increasingly becoming a serious issue for American teens. Sixty-two percent of incoming freshman surveyed by the American College Health Association said they’d experienced overwhelming anxiety the year before, up from 50-percent in 2011. High school counselors and parents are increasingly aware of the problem, especially when teens are so anxious they don’t want to go to school.

While teens from many backgrounds experience anxiety, it’s often the more affluent families who find the problem most baffling. Adults aren’t surprised when teens from poor neighborhoods feel anxious about safety or home dynamics, but  it can be harder to understand what’s going on with kids who seem to have everything going for them.

In his New York Times Magazine article, Benoit Denizet-Lewis follows several teens from this group in an effort to understand what anxious teens are feeling and the treatment options available to them. Often their anxiety stems from feeling they aren’t in control of their futures. Denizet-Lewis writes:

Teenagers raised in more affluent communities might seemingly have less to feel anxious about. But Suniya Luthar, a professor of psychology at Arizona State University who has studied distress and resilience in both well-off and disadvantaged teenagers, has found that privileged youths are among the most emotionally distressed young people in America. “These kids are incredibly anxious and perfectionistic,” she says, but there’s “contempt and scorn for the idea that kids who have it all might be hurting.”

For many of these young people, 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,’ ” Luthar says. “There’s always one more activity, one more A.P. class, one more thing to do in order to get into a top college. Kids have a sense that they’re not measuring up. The pressure is relentless and getting worse.”

Denizet-Lewis goes on to write that many people assume teens feel this stress because of helicopter parents who do too much for their kids. But that assumption may be faulty. Some psychologists are saying the adolescents they see are driving themselves crazy, and many parents don’t know how to help. Denizet-Lewis writes about one teen, Jillian, whose mother struggled with how to treat her:

“The million-dollar question of raising an anxious child is: When is pushing her going to help because she has to face her fears, and when is it going to make the situation worse and she’s going to have a panic attack?” Allison told me. “I feel like I made the wrong decision many times, and it destroyed my confidence as a mother.”

Young people like those profiled in Denizet-Lewis’ article are struggling mightily against their own worst instincts, but perhaps the larger question here is about the messages they are receiving from the world around them. How can educators and parents help kids understand there’s more than one “right” path and multiple ways of being successful in the world?

Why Are More American Teenagers Than Ever Suffering From Severe Anxiety?

Alarmed, Jake’s parents sent him to his primary-care physician, who prescribed Prozac, an antidepressant often given to anxious teenagers. It was the first of many medications that Jake, who asked that his last name not be used, would try over the next year. But none seemed to work – and some made a bad situation worse.

Anxiety Is Taking A Toll On Teens, Their Families And Schools 20 October,2017Katrina Schwartz

  • Val Loev

    I disagree. Seems more like there are less and less ways of being successful in this world. A billion more ppl than the previous generation, robots, apps and even vending machines taking all jobs not just menial labor ones anymore. We adults crashed the economy and THEY will have to pay it all back whilst their environment is literally on fire, flooded or melted, the oceans are over fished and totally polluted and the politicians in charge are raping the system faster than hurricanes can blow! Not to mention us parents lie/raising them like they even have a chance! I just hope I’m wrong but that is why kids have anxiety; parents know the truth and the kids feel it!

    • Phranqlin

      I think you’re on to something. There’s definitely a sense that kids have a narrowing window of opportunity. The stakes seem to be a lot higher and parents are becoming more and more anxious themselves about their children.

    • Keleborn Telperion

      By definition, the vast majority of young persons do not score 99 percentile on the SAT. Do you think they are all ending up homeless? When you choose who to be friends with or who to do business with, do you inquire into their School GPA?
      I think its more likely that kids have anxiety because their parents are scaring them to death with their own fears.
      There are many paths to success and happiness. The University is only one of them – and because they must sift winners from losers, are not even a good path for many of its attendees. Except, of course, it is possible to fail at the University and still be successful at life. Part of being resilient is being flexible, and ready to recognize and respond to opportunities wherever they may arise.

  • Richard Rundhaug

    Being aware of mental health issues is critical today. Families have not been able to fill many of the needs they have in the past and it is now critical that we realize and accept the idea that students need more access to behavioral and mental health providers. We need to make sure we are aware of signs that lead us servicing students as necessary. We cannot simply assume all is OK with students until there is a major break down. We need to be more proactive with subtle signs we see in students.

  • Inclusive Vision

    How about the tremendous pressure created by absurd college application demands (4+GPA and almost perfect SAT scores) and teachers who cannot show care to most of their 30 students while grading hundreds of weekly quizzes & tests…these kids rush from one test to another, constantly pressured by a system that allows little time for reflection and thinking, a system that leads to such an unhealthy school environment. No, no more blaming teachers, parents or kids! Look at the system!


Katrina Schwartz

Katrina Schwartz is a journalist based in San Francisco. She’s worked at KPCC public radio in LA and has reported on air and online for KQED since 2010. She’s a staff writer for KQED’s education blog MindShift.

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