Confronting the New Anxiety
How Therapists can Help Today's Fearful Kids
By Ron Taffel
Johnny says I'm a faggot. I'll rip his arms out--then we'll see who's gay! "Bitch!" How did Jenny get that tattoo? I'm going to throw up. "Just do it!" A lot of kids are going to crash that party. "Parents, the antidrug." Mom will kill me--wait I'm at Dad's this week. "Get the stuff!" I want Game Boy, Play Station 2 . . . . "You've got mail!" "Wazzup! Hey, everybody does not think I'm bipolar!" "New standardized tests . . . ." Shit, I don't get this math. The test's tomorrow, but first, I have to check my e-mails and then listen to the CD I just burned and . . . . "Twelve more killed in . . . . " I'm so tired, but what's that noise outside? "Order in the next 30 minutes and . . . ." "Mom, I am not too young for a thong!" "New unemployment figures . . . ." Valerie's father died and Betsy's parents just split up and Bobby's family is moving away. "You're a teenager now, deal!" I just can't take it anymore!
Listen to enough kids and it often sounds like they're coming apart at the seams. Teens and preteens today pulsate with anxiety in a pressure-cooker youth culture and an explosive world, ever at the edge. Not that you'd know it when you first meet them. For the most part, they don't act particularly scared. They don't come in with raging guilt, repression, or conflict--the traditional, "gold-standard" symptoms of neurotic anxiety. They rarely present with PTSD as their main complaint and, in fact, seem quite removed from the world-worries that the media, parents, and trauma experts seem so focused on.
Indeed, today's children and adolescents often present such a convincing front of sophistication, such a steady stream of activity, such articulate, pop-culture babble that they virtually shimmer with techno-energy. No, this 21st-century teen anxiety is different. It's at once chaotic, chronic, and cool--more invisible than the air we breathe. And make no mistake about it, all of this began well before September 11th. We attribute great psychological significance to that horrific day, but September 11th didn't create the new anxiety among so many kids today. It just finally got adults to notice what had been building in our children for years.
Spend time with teens and preteens and you gradually become aware that beneath the seemingly jaded precocity is a fretful undercurrent of worry and fear, unimaginable for 11- or 13- or 15-year-olds just a decade ago. Get into the nitty-gritty of their daily lives and you'll find their thoughts racing, like overheated jet engines, from one source of stress to another--the next make-or-break standardized test, the next totally unsupervised after-school bash, the next late-night, midweek concert they have to be at. Explore a little farther and you'll pick up palpable dread about going on-line with kids who regularly torment them. You'll feel their agitation about whether they should have oral sex after school. You'll catch the gnawing fear that their parents may break up, like so many others, or suddenly move the family halfway across the country.