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It's Not Contagious - How Teens Handle Stress

My adolescent clients have been coming in with terrible angst. They are triggered and tested to death. Kids say that school has no meaning because all professors do is “teach to the test.” This was before the pandemic. Now, with online school winding down for the summer, kids and teachers who are high achievers are burnt out (can't focus, can't think, can't move); kids who are low achievers often get inappropriate help, like being muddled into a co-classroom that combines autism with ADD, dyslexia, and mentally ill kids all in one small, unventilated space. My client said she couldn't read because the other kids were screaming. 

College students relate that they are anxious about the “cancel culture” and they’re running out of safe activities to do for the summer. My own daughter recently went to visit her college to hang out, just pretending that everything was normal. The worst President in history is sitting on his throne while Gen Z are tallying their college debt and wondering if there will be a job after graduation. They don’t want to work in this gig-economy and their parents have thrown up their hands worrying about what’s next. A perverse kind of relative morality, with lies and deceit perpetrated by this administration, is gaining traction, while doing the right thing and basic decency are a lost art.  I told one of my clients to go volunteer somewhere and he looked at me like I was insane.

Kids come in saying their parents are awful. Like a parent who says, I’m going to have another child to give me what you can’t, I’m getting divorced because of you, I’m going to send you away, I’m tired. Or, we will no longer pay your bills if you don’t do something! I had one mom say, looking straight at her daughter in the office, “You’re a 5, but you could be a 10.” I don't think I have ever heard anything so crushing in one fell swoop.

Teens and young adults come to therapy alienated, estranged, confused, isolated, lonely, angry, clinically depressed, anxious, avoidant, and socially scared to death. They think their parents’ anxiety is contagious.  They turn to substances, self-harm and self-doubt; they turn to more and more risky behaviors, hoping someone will stop them from becoming utterly numb.  But alas, no one is available. Vaping has become the culprit of some serious if not fatal issues, but keep your eyes on the prize. The underlying causes of self-destructive behavior have not changed.  

Here’s what I’ve gleaned:

  1. Anxiety and depression, OCD, mood problems and personality disorders have some inheritable characteristics but you can’t “catch” them from your “crazy” parents.

  2. Learn to face your fears early and often. If you avoid them you stagnate.

  3. Your parents have their own problems. They cannot transmit them to you. Try to grow and learn in ways they can’t.

First and foremost agree that the welfare of the child is paramount. Then it is important for both parents (together if possible) to give the child a framework that is age appropriate to make sense of the divorce. It may be something as simple as, “Mom and Dad cannot live together but we both love you and will continue to take care of you.” The framework statement of course will be much different for a 6-year-old than a 16-year-old child. Explain to the child it is the parent’s choice and it is not their fault. You will have more success if you have this conversation more than once.

So before you strangle your kid for his attitude, kill him with kindness and sense the positive outcome. Acknowledge what he or she is going through. A little support goes a long way.

Parenting is hard.  Parenting a teen through a divorce and a pandemic deserves a medal.






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