Over the last decade or so, I've talked to, literally, thousands of parents, kids, and professionals all over the country and across practically all socioeconomic groups. I've gotten the same message in a crescendo: kids everywhere are overwhelmed by a tidal wave of culturally induced anxiety. There's not a town or city--unless it's completely free of rapidly morphing family configurations, impossibly frenetic overscheduling, 24-hour, 500-channel TV access, unlimited cell phone and Internet connections--that doesn't exhibit the signs of epidemic anxiety among its youngsters.
What we used to refer to as the "presenting" problem that presumably masked the real "underlying" issue has become something that requires less clinical detective work: often the problem is the struggle to handle the stress of normal, everyday life. Fifteen-year-old John has been drinking too much and ends up in my office. Yes, his drinking is a troubling concern, but not compared to the viselike grip of anxiety he feels about 30 hours of homework a week, 4 hours of basketball practice every night, 3 hours a week of community service, and, of course, 2 parties a weekend. What about Julia, who's in therapy because of her almost failing grades? Sure, she's worried about school. But what really preoccupies her is the phenomenon The New York Times recently called the "whore wars." She's caught in a bind. She feels she must show as much skin as possible, but how can she do this when she's obsessed by the fact that so many different parts of her body are "absolutely grotesque"? Of course, girls have lived with impossible standards of physical perfection for decades, but now it's happening at younger and younger ages--Julia is 11. And her friend Ethan, also a preteen, is one of the growing number of young boys I know who are obsessed about their bodies, too--not buff enough, too skinny, too small. "Might as well be dead."
Thirteen-year-old Peter is in my office because he's isolated and he turns people off. What's really going on beneath his haughty presentation, though, is that he's been typed as gay. Why? He once put his arm around another boy in a moment of friendship, and, since then, he's been accused of being "ass hungry." Mona's got it all--the perfect look, the perfect body, and she's super-smart. So, what keeps Mona so fearful? Precisely because of her magnetism, she's the object of anonymous Internet insults, online come-ons, and, lately, direct threats on her life. What keeps Michael up at night is that he can't turn himself off after an ordinary evening. What's ordinary? Being online with six people at once while talking on the phone with two friends on call waiting, burning a CD for a pal, doing his homework with a friend, and listening to the TV in the background--just "to keep him company."