Teens and Anxiety

teen_anxietyby David Hafter, MFT

Many of us who work with teens in the mental health field have noted, with some alarm, how many of them suffer from significant levels of chronic anxiety. This causes them physical and emotional upset and disrupts their ability to concentrate well in school. It also contributes to self-medicating with substance use, which often leads to abuse and worse. For families, anxious people can be hard to live with; their anxieties often create negative interactions in the family.

A certain amount of anxiety is normal for teens. For one thing, as we adults should remember from our own youth, teens are experiencing a myriad of physical, emotional and intellectual changes. This natural but challenging maturational process requires a lot of adjusting. Then there are the social challenges, figuring out the answer(s) to questions like: Who am I? What do I believe? What are my values? Who can I trust? What am I going to be/do when I grow up?

Answers to those questions tend to shift during these years, and that is a good thing. Utilizing their critical thinking skills, teens explore their burgeoning identity while pondering and discussing topics of philosophy, religion, social issues or politics. This is where we see teens trying on different social identities to see what fits for them – and to start to separate and differentiate from their parents. This is a major task of adolescence. By an often painful process of trial and error, they figure who is safe to trust, and who is not. With patient guidance from trustworthy adults, teens are hopefully steered away from simplistic and unrealistic black-and-white thinking; but in so doing, they pay a price, getting a disturbing sense of how complicated the world really is. This, in itself, can create anxiety, for sure.

In addition, as teens age the expectations on them from parents/guardians, peers and schools evolve and increase. As they move inexorably towards adulthood, each one grapples with how to handle drugs, sexuality, grades, peer pressure, extra-curricular activities and the various pressures to succeed. They know that some of their peers break the law to get fast money, and it is tempting to join in, even when they know better. The values emphasized in much of the media are wealth, youth and beauty. For teens who are trying to fit in and deal with their intensive self-criticism, these soul-less ideals are often out of their reach.

All of this is on the plate of the average teenager, and by average I mean one who has not had his or her life complicated by too many traumatic experiences. For these kids, there are numerous extra layers of the onion far beyond the scope of a monthly column like this. I will ask you to take my word for it. When it comes to teens with extensive trauma histories, especially for those whose experiences have not been adequately addressed and processed, they have way more to deal with as they grow up than do their luckier peers.

As for the standard anxiety producing pressures, however, these have not changed much over the generations – forty years ago I dealt with them, too, and in your day, so did you – but today’s teenagers’ plates seem more crowded than were ours. Why? I wish I had a pat answer for that but I don’t. So, let’s speculate together for a bit.

Today’s teens are offered fantastic distractions which would have been inconceivable to all but the most sci-fi literate of teenaged Baby Boomers. The information and communication explosion of the past twenty or so years gives teenagers instant access to, well, everything – including many materials and topics parents might otherwise have held back from them at this age. It is not just the questionable content which concerns me; it is also the overstimulation of the brain by electronic devices. Teens already don’t get enough sleep due to their schedules. Add in the stimulation on the brain of these bright screens and the instant access to immeasurable amounts of information and it’s no wonder the young brain has a hard time letting go and hitting the off switch. Moreover, where is the time and motivation for self-reflection when there is an unending list of compelling videos to watch?

As for the videos themselves, I remember when MTV first came out and, as a musician and music lover, I was excited about being able to watch bands play and to see the video projects as mini song-related films. What I soon saw, however, was that the majority of the videos featured such rapid edits that one could not follow anything in any detail. Forget watching hands playing instruments. Forget any smooth viewing experiences. Most videos looked frantic to me. I believe the shortening of the average child’s attention span is related to the exposure to fast moving stimulation. Try getting a teenager interested in a compelling, dialogue driven, low action film like Casablanca or The Sting. You’ll likely end up on the couch by yourself.

As for the video games out now, set aside the negative content of some of them (violence and social mayhem), the graphics and sounds alone in these games are amazing. I readily admit to kids that I am glad those games did not exist when I was a teenager – I know I would be similarly tempted by them. Meanwhile, how many times have you seen groups of teens standing or sitting together, all staring at their phones? What is this doing to the development of a teenager’s social skills? Are they having in depth conversations, or is the ever increasing levels of social anxieties among teens getting in the way? I think there is an intrinsic difference between sharing brief opinions on a video watched together and a real discussion on the topic(s) brought up by it. Meanwhile, between wild games, weird web sites and internet porn, today’s kids must develop effective self-discipline or risk falling far behind those who do.

Another category of anxiety-producing stressors on kids is the state of the world. I think I can anticipate some of you saying, “I doubt that’s an issue. Today’s kids aren’t paying any attention to politics, economics or the environment. They’re just staring at their phones 24/7.” Frankly, I’m sympathetic to that argument but I wouldn’t say teens are the only ones staring at their phones. I’m often guilty of that, myself. How about you? Moreover, I know I have been complaining about all these electronics but they are also viable, useful tools if we know how to balance our use of them with other activities. We don’t always know exactly what they are doing and reading on their phones so it’s not fair to assume they are always wasting their time.

The saying, “If you’re not outraged, then you’re not paying attention,” fits well here, but teens need not be aware of all the details of today’s social issues to pick up on the free-floating anxiety in the culture, or in their own homes. For example, teens have been living with the so-called (and by definition, unwinnable) ‘war on terrorism’ for their entire lives. That constant hum of fear takes a toll on you whether you are consciously aware of it or not. In my day, we had the Cold War – with its policy of ‘mutually assured destruction’ – to keep us feeling safe at night from the ever present threat of nuclear war – oh, yes, that and serious pollution. I remember smog days in Southern California when we were not allowed to go out and play. I could, however, watch the Viet Nam war on TV and wonder if it would end before my age group reached the front of the line. These were big fears, too, as has been this war on terrorism, but at least there were plenty of jobs in those days and most moms in two parent families didn’t have to work for a family to keep food on the table. Many of today’s teens watched their parents struggle over lost jobs, declining incomes, increased costs and so on.

Despite what we adults may assume, teens do more than just Instagram one another on their phones. They see memes about our generation having wrecked the planet’s ecosystem past the point of repair. What must they think when they read of politicians with the power to put us on a healthier course – but instead voting for policies that either deny the problems altogether or make any positive responses impossible?

They see unarmed kids of color – their peers, mind you – gunned down in the streets by police. They see the massive unfairness of the economic system and quickly learn the lesson that ‘selfishness rules’. I have spoken with intelligent young people in their 20’s and 30’s who consider people who ‘follow the rules’ suckers. It is easy to see why they would have a “Who cares, as long as I get mine?” attitude. It’s no wonder they focus on short term pleasures instead of long term planning. Nothing is looking very good in the long term. Still, along the way, they may still be anxious about their futures. They know the day is coming when they have to pay their own rent and buy their own food (and pay for their own smart-phone bills).

So, what to do about it all? For our part, we counselors draw out, acknowledge and validate their fears. We teach them how to manage their anxieties by using self-care strategies. We teach them how to communicate their needs clearly and respectfully so that those needs are more likely to get met. We teach them how to get through their day, accomplishing successfully the tasks right in front of them. These are useful skills everyone must have.

We can’t change the world (at least not as fast as we want it to change) but in the face of all this youthful anxiety, we can help. We can increase a teenager’s self-awareness and self-acceptance; we can promote healthy self-expression. The best strategy for accomplishing this is the simple addition of a passion-driven hobby to a teenager’s life. A teenager with a passionate interest in creative writing, film-making, art of any sort, playing an instrument, building things, playing a sport seriously and so on, is a teenager who is learning self-discipline, delay of gratification, patience and self-forgiveness: important life skills. You can’t become good at your hobby by staring at a video screen. There is still room for electronics in a teenager’s creative world. You can learn how to do almost anything by watching YouTube instructional videos, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Lots of people can’t afford guitar lessons but if you have internet access, you can have good teachers tutor you for free. It’s not the give and take of a flesh and blood teacher, but it’s pretty darn good. This is an example of using electronics as tools for growth, not anxiety producing distractions from life.

One final thing to consider: My group gives kids a foundation against which they can compare the likely results of their attitudes and behaviors. We tell them to consider judging their thoughts and actions by whether or not their approach will likely keep them “safe, healthy and out of trouble.” All of us, we explain, are going to have some good luck and some bad luck in our lives. If we can, more or less, most of the time, stay safe, healthy and out of trouble, life is simply going to go better.

David N Hafter, MFT is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist living in Davis.

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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  1. wdf1

    Great article!  I appreciated learning about these issues from your professional perspective.

    This part really resonates with me in raising and mentoring teens:  The best strategy for accomplishing this is the simple addition of a passion-driven hobby to a teenager’s life. A teenager with a passionate interest in creative writing, film-making, art of any sort, playing an instrument, building things, playing a sport seriously and so on, is a teenager who is learning self-discipline, delay of gratification, patience and self-forgiveness: important life skills.

    What I would add is that I think teens often lack the confidence and skills to interact so smoothly with others.  Excessive attachment to electronic devices may not help.  Many of the activities listed can also offer a structured social component — sports, group music performance, theater, newspaper, yearbook, etc. — in which social skills such as patience with others and appropriate social restraint, courtesy, expression gratitude, social leadership and support can be effectively developed.

    From anecdotal survey, I find a tendency in students with serious danger of disciplinary issues and potentially dropping out of and failing school likely to be profoundly isolated, socially.

  2. Frankly

    Great article.  I found much I agree with, and much I disagree with.

    Since I am Frankly, let me comment on what I disagree with.

    The author eventually heads toward the expected left political-media narrative of problems.

    They see memes about our generation having wrecked the planet’s ecosystem past the point of repair. What must they think when they read of politicians with the power to put us on a healthier course – but instead voting for policies that either deny the problems altogether or make any positive responses impossible?


    They see unarmed kids of color – their peers, mind you – gunned down in the streets by police.


    They see the massive unfairness of the economic system and quickly learn the lesson that ‘selfishness rules’.

    There you have it.  Want to understand some of the source of anxiety, look no further than this author’s words.

    The man is “wrecking the planet beyond repair”.  The man is gunning down kids of color in the street.  The man is responsible for massive economic unfairness.

    Heck, even I am made anxious by all of this.

    Really, I have trouble holding my cool in the face of such obvious BS.  It is a left worldview / liberal orthodoxy that is promulgated with a campaign that foments fear, envy and anger primarily for political gains.  We are in the middle of a great cultural/social/class war for the future of this country.  The kids are just pawns in this war.  You want to understand the source of their anxiety, look no further than this.

    The honest fact is that the natural world has never been in better shape.  Kids of color face a miniscule percentage of the types of racism and bias that their parents and grandparents faced.  And economic opportunity is more race, gender and LGBT neutral than it has ever been.

    Now the right is fond of doing similar things related to national security.  Interestingly enough, things have never looked worse on that front.

    Utopia does not exist.  Kids know this more than the apparently cognitively-impaired adults that keep attempting to inject the alternative universe view into their brains.

    Yes the kids are struggling to deal with the over stimulation of modernity and 24x7x365 information and entertainment flow.  But these kids are smarter, sharper, faster and more creative than any generation that came before them.  But they are kept in line and yelled at if they fidget.

    They are made anxious by the crappy education system that today fits like a jagged rock in a world of fine machinery.  They experience their handheld device, and then they trudge to schools that operate with prehistoric methods that predate industrialization.

    Then they graduate to a world lacking interesting jobs because the adults taxed and regulated business until it went overseas.

    The kids are made anxious because they see the mounting government debt they will have to pay for.  They read about old people sitting well on fat public pensions and home equity that they gorged on from their government-made real estate Ponzi scheme.  They see greed alright.  They see it in their professor that fails to show up to teach the class while he pursues his own self interest to be published while they, the kids, are swimming in student loan debt.  They see it in their parents that demand higher taxes from others and then yell at the newspaper when they themselves get hit with higher costs.  They see it in the firefighter that retires at age 50 with a 6 digit end of life paid vacation, and then see that he gets a second job too.

    Moving from mother’s child, to father’s child to adult, people naturally seek the roots of stability this progression provides while branching out seeking self-identity and self-worth.  Smart phones and video games are worthy of consideration for what causes kids’ anxiety; but the primary culprit is the destruction of the standards that created the foundations of stability.  What provides for a stable foundation for kids to progress to happy and satisfied adults?  Focus on answering this question and making the necessary improvements if you want to help eliminate childhood anxiety.

  3. Tia Will


    The honest fact is that the natural world has never been in better shape.”

    I cannot conceive of how you can believe this to be true. You do not believe that the “natural world” was in better shape before our industries and automobiles created the phenomena called smog. You do not believe that the “natural world” was in better shape before we began having huge oil spills and polluting out oceans with plastics. You do not believe that the “natural world”was better off prior to our use of multiple pesticides and other chemicals that have contaminated our soils, or before essentially all of the top soil in Haiti was lost, and before we began deforestation of large areas of the globe.

    Now you might draw the conclusion that humans are materially better off, but that is not what you said. You said that the “natural world” has never been in better shape and I simply cannot believe that you believe that to be true.

    1. Frankly

      Well Tia, if the natural world is not in better shape, then I suggest we do away with the EPA and the complete Federal register of all environmental regulation and also all of our acquired state and national parks and save the money we are spending on all of it.


    2. TrueBlueDevil

      The natural world of America – with mankind as a major inhabitant – is better off today than it was in 1960 or 1970. The catalytic converter and the reduction of lead from gasoline has substantially reduced the air pollution that we put into our environment. We’ve removed lead from paint. We have minimal (or no) acid rain, and rivers no longer catch on fire in the upper northeast. We’ve spent hundreds of millions, or billions, cleaning up Superfund sites, and other environmental errors. We have strict local, county, state, and federal rules and regulations. The increase in wind power, solar, and most importantly, Natural Gas – has led to our reducing CO2 emissions by 20% as we have closed or converted some coal power plants.

      We do have lots of polluted sites which sit primarily on federal lands (no private property motivation). We could stop adding new federal lands, sell some of the excess, and use the funds generated to clean up some of the existing polluted sites. If we completed the California Water Project, we’d have enough water to further protect our fish stocks and natural waterways.

      Yes, there are some “negative externalities” generated by human beings, but we’ve also made tremendous strides in our own health. We rarely die from malnutrition or starvation, and our life expectancies have increased by decades. We’ve beaten some forms of cancer, and extended survival rates on many others. Our top physical threats are self-imposed – smoking, drugs, and obesity.

      Where did oil come from? The ground. Microbes gobbled up much of the oil spilled in the Gulf and in Alaska.

      Our forests would be better off if the environmental extremists wouldn’t overrule knowledgeable foresters and scientists who know what a forest equilibrium was. They created the firestorm in Yellowstone, not American Industrialists. Thin the forest, allow small fires, cut fire breaks, and don’t allow megafires to kill the soil and nutrients at superheated temperatures.

    1. Frankly

      Interesting.  That is exactly the same point being made by both of us.  Except we actually back it with detail instead of one-liner derisiveness.

  4. TrueBlueDevil

    This shrink skipped over some important items which create stress.

    Many parents have abdicated their parental roles. On top of this, many parents of the 60s and liberal mindset prefer to be friends and see their developing children as intellectual and emotional equals. They aren’t. If parents set better boundaries (or any boundaries), children would have less stress!

    En locus parentis – the local parent in charge – used to support parents. This has ended in many areas with our loosey goosey morals and lawyers.

    Church / religion – used to help raise most children, now is seen as a punch line for jokes.

    Discipline – used to be taught by schools, church, parents, society – now, for a variety of factors, this has fallen by the wayside in many communities and families. (Not with Tiger Moms.)

    The iPhone, online porn, naked texting are just the effect of the loss of the above structure and moral environment. Getting a hardcore magazine was tough decades ago, it took someone (typically a male youth) with the courage and money to sneak into a sleezy, dirty porn shop, and successful acquire one magazine. Fast forward to today. Young teens and pre-teen girls – hungry for acceptance, love, popularity – can take and send naked pictures anonymously across cyberspace. And how many parents that read this have installed any kind of application to prevent this, or have searched though their child’s phone to make sure the are safe and protected? How many have spoken to their children and unequivocally prohibited their children from ding such? How many have promised severe consequences if the send such naked pictures?

    Children can live without iPhones; they can sleep with their phone located in the kitchen or parents bedroom so they aren’t woken every 5 minutes by tweets, twitters, facebook or naked pictures.

    We have counselors, like the above, who paint our society as victims and horrible, when in fact our children have limitless possibilities as long as they get an education; don’t get knocked up; don’t join a gang; don’t abuse prescription drugs; and don’t use drugs, including marijuana (it has recently been shown to reduce teens IQ by up to 10%, along with other medical and psychotic problems).

    Yes, there are problems, but we’ll work on those. We’re not starving in Zimbabwe. We have a meritocracy as clearly proven by our President, DJUSD superintendent, and UCD chancellor.


  5. PhilColeman

    I’ve been fortunate enough to live through 4 generations of youth; been in one, and contributed to another. In each generation, there has been the same comments about contemporary youth, all of it negative and worthy of great societal concern.

    I also recall my Dad saying about teens during his youth: sitting in bombers and getting shot at by fighter planes and artillery shells exploding around them. Or being down near the water line in an ocean vessel, wondering when a torpedo would terminate their young lives. They had stress too, and it was not a video game.

    How far back does each generation express dismay over the current state of child behavior and performance? Quite awhile.  Socrates the ancient Greek philosopher is reputed to have said:

    ‘The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.’

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