The heartbreaking teen anxiety epidemic and what parents can do about it

I sat on a parenting panel last month with a well-known and widely respected counselor by the name of Sissy Goff, M.Ed, LPC-MHSP. She is the Director of Child & Adolescent Counseling at Daystar in Nashville and when asked about the biggest issue facing kids today, she confirmed what you’ve probably read about recently on your news feed or even your Facebook feed – the increasing anxiety epidemic in our country.

But it’s not just an epidemic among our kids. It’s an epidemic among us — their parents.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety is the most common mental-health disorder in the United States, affecting nearly one-third of both adolescents and adults.

In a recent article entitled “Why Are More American Teenagers Than Ever Suffering from Severe Anxiety” we glean significant insight into the anxiety epidemic:

I’ll just share just two key points from the article:

“Privileged youths are among the most emotionally distressed young people in America. These kids are incredibly anxious and perfectionistic.”

“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.’  Kids have a sense that they’re not measuring up. The pressure is relentless and getting worse.”

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If you’re reading this article as a mom, I imagine it breaks your heart like it breaks mine (as the mother of four boys who range in age from toddler to teenager) to learn that the pressure our kids are under “is relentless and getting worse.” Of course, I think we already assumed this to be true.  But knowing it to be true leaves us responsible to do something to fight against it.

We have to be willing to take an honest (maybe painfully honest) look at how we may have contributed to the anxiety our kids feel with the pressure we just might be passing down. With our unrealistic expectations and impossible standards of ourselves, and of them.

See, we parents aren’t the only ones linking accomplishment to acceptance and success to significance. Our kids are attempting to answer the question, “Is who I am enough?” by how well they perform on the field, how much they excel in school, and how many likes they get on their Instagram feed.

They are attempting to answer that question, “Is who I am enough?” by proving they can do enough and be enough. Whatever “enough” is. Because you and I both know enough is never enough when the goal is perpetual perfection.

The primary message our kids receive is that they’d better be the best at everything, and this leaves them afraid to reveal their inadequacies and insecurities—and hiding behind the best version of themselves.

In turn, parents of anxious teens feel helpless and hopeless, questioning all of the steps we are — or aren’t — taking. Our confidence as moms crumbles as we try to help our kids navigate the battles they have to fight and the mountains they have to climb.

We are constantly second-guessing ourselves: “Have I done too much? Have I not done enough? Am I helping or am I hurting my child?”

Our anxiety escalates and overflows into our parenting and onto our kids, who then take our anxiety on top of their own.

I won’t pretend to even begin to be able to solve this for us here. I don’t have all the answers. Not even a little bit. But I do have this one nugget – which is the primary message woven into my new book, “Mom Set Free,” and I believe it to be true with everything in me.

A key ingredient in helping our kids overcome their anxiety is facing and working through our own anxiety.

It starts with us.  It doesn’t end with us.  But we are part of the solution.

We have to be willing to take an honest (maybe painfully honest) look at how we may have contributed to the anxiety our kids feel with the pressure we just might be passing down. With our unrealistic expectations and impossible standards of ourselves, and of them.

Of course, some kids are just more prone to perfection seeking than others. Such kids tend to create their own pressure, even if their parents are actively trying to relieve it. But often, we parents play a role in the pressure — and therefore, anxiety —  our kids feel, so we have to be willing to take an honest look at how we pile our own pressure onto our kids.

And ultimately, it is our responsibility to help our kids push back the pressure they face with the truth of God’s Word. I am not at all suggesting that therapy and medication aren’t part of the solution.  They often times are. But please let us not forget the alive and powerful Word of God that has the absolute power to show us where our significance comes from and ultimately set us free from proving our worth and our value in our performance.

Kids who constantly feel like they just don’t measure up and who feel they have “everything” to prove need to be told – over and over again – they actually have “nothing” to prove.  Because this pressure to prove our value and worth have left parents and children alike longing for what all our hearts most crave:

•        to be known—truly and deeply known

•        to be accepted—for who they are, not who they wish they were to be loved—with no strings attached

This isn’t sentimental fluff. This is the solid truth from which freedom springs. There is absolutely no denying the inherent and deepest longing every human soul holds.

If we want to raise kids who find freedom from the pressure to get it ALL right in order to be accepted and welcomed, then we are going to need to walk in that freedom first. Or at least be willing to discover how to walk in that freedom alongside our kids.

We need to know that failing doesn’t make us failures and succeeding doesn’t make us significant.  At least not in the eyes of our Creator — the only One whose opinion of us really matters in the end.

In God’s eyes we are of great worth, not because of anything we have or haven’t done, but because of what has been done for us in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

The cross has the final word on our value. Believing that truth and embracing that truth isn’t the only thing we need to do.  But it is a firm foundation on which to build a life of freedom from anxiety and the exhausting endless quest to prove our value through our performance.

This post originally appeared on Fox News and was republished with permission. 

Jeannie Cunnion is the author of Parenting the Wholehearted Child and Mom Set Free, and a frequent speaker at women’s conferences and parenting events around the country. Her passion is encouraging women to live in the freedom for which Christ has set us free – a message her own heart needs to be reminded of daily. Jeannie and her husband Mike have four boys who range from teenager to toddler.


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