Children today are under more pressure than ever before. A recent book, “IGen: Why today’s super-connected kids are growing up less rebellious, more tolerant, less happy – and completely unprepared for adulthood – and what that means for the rest of us” (Twenge, J.M. Simon and Schuster, 2017) has documented that these young people have higher levels of anxiety and fear than their predecessors. They appear to be more at risk as well. Nearly 20% of female adolescents engage in self-harm as an outlet for emotional distress. Suicide was the second leading cause of death among teens 12-17 years old in 2010. (2011-2012 National Survey of Children’s Health)
What is causing this to happen?
I believe there are several factors that contribute to the higher level of fear in children today. The first is that modern life is more complex for children. Their world is more diverse and difficult than years ago. There are no simple answers anymore nor one set of values that define “the American way”. America’s melting pot is creating a culture of diversity that accentuates the differences without defining and emphasizing what unites us. Different families display a wide spectrum of solutions and the children are left to figure it out for themselves.
The advances in technology are a second factor that has served to promote the lack of cultural unity. While technology has exposed children to all the information in the world, it does not come without its costs. The modern child will often make choices without a parent even knowing it. The old parent falls back, “Because I said so” doesn’t work in a world where they can ask Siri or Google any question and learn on their own. They are asked to make decisions at an early age when they don’t understand the range of options, let alone understand how their own emotions drive their choices.
A third source of pressure on children today is that they live with a level of societal fear that is debilitating. Fear causes disturbing behavior in adults, let alone in children. All humans, regardless of age, tend to turn to sameness and structure in the face of fear. Differences become threatening. When fear runs high, people want to be around those who look like them, talk like them, think like them and act like them.
That fear is palpable in the divisive politics in our country, the abusive practices of authority figures from priests to presidents, corruption in government, greed in our financial institutions and the antagonism toward minorities and immigrants. People who are afraid need answers, and, in states of high fear, people lose the ability to trust themselves and their ability to critically evaluate. Thinking for themselves becomes too threatening.
Children follow their parents’ lead.
Fear is contagious and children get it from adults. Children are born into dependency and need parents’ help and permission to become independent. Independence and self-reliance become the antidotes to anxiety and depression. Fear interferes with the development of independence. Being independent in the face of fear is extremely difficult. When children contract their parents’ fears, they become more dependent and cling more tightly than ever to family and friends. They try to please to excess and pay the price with high levels of depression and anxiety.
When the family connection doesn’t provide the reassurances they need, children bond with other kids in desperate ways. Virtual friends are confused with real friends. Facebook “likes” become a source of validation rather than mutual respect and emotional honesty. Fear makes children become mean. They reject those who are different. They turn on each other, bullying others who are different or unable to fight back. They form bonds by rejecting a third party. They turn on themselves with self-harm or suicide. They use sex, booze, and drugs to calm the fears, only to fly into rages when the distractions fail to hold back the fears.
Origin Of The Social Fears
When exactly did the fear level rise to these high levels? Most people would point to the 9/11 bombing of the twin towers in Manhattan in 2001 as the primary cause. The world certainly changed on that day. Americans felt threatened and wanted to fight back to protect themselves. American anger became directed at the Muslim world. We went to war to resolve our fears, only to spend billions of dollars fighting unconventional wars in Iraq and Afghanistan without real end or resolution.
The terrorist act on 9/11 caused people to increase their fear of differences. This was especially true for people of Middle Eastern descent and spilled over to minorities and immigrants. People of all kinds and from all countries became targets rather than be treated as fellow Americans who embrace American values and ideals. Defining who was a true American in this land of diversity became very difficult to determine or define.
The lack of cultural unity caused people to distrust each other. Who exactly was an American these days and what exactly made you a real American?
What was the American way?
Did you have to be a conservative to be a true American?
Did you need to be white or just racially color-blind?
If you cared for the environment, were you a tree-hugger that didn’t care about the economy?
If you believed in socialism, did you reject American capitalism?
Americans have not answered those basic questions and continue to quarrel over who we are and what we stand for.
The Psychological Revolution: From Roles to Emotional Honesty
While 9/11 certainly raised the fear level, I believe it was already trending in that direction long before the turn of the century. Rather than create the fear, I believe that terrorist act exposed the level of fear that already existed in America in 2001. I believe that the origin of that fear goes all the way back over 50 years to the unresolved issues from the social revolution of the 1960’s.
Back in the 60’s, a social revolution occurred to reform the very nature of how connections and relationships were created, the essential fabric of society. The Greatest Generation that fought two world wars and endured the Great Depression was held together by roles. Fathers, mothers, children and others had defined responsibilities that everyone followed. The parents’ job was to provide food, clothing and shelter and to set the rules. Children were to obey and follow the rules. God, family and country were valued in that order. Most people knew their place and did their job. While minorities existed and raised complaints, their voice was ignored and they had little power. The majority ruled.
Then along came the Baby Boomers and the Vietnam War in the 1960’s.
Distrust in government and social institutions grew. The easy answers no longer worked for that generation. “America, love it or leave it” was too simple. The world was now more complex, with different answers being offered to fix complex problems. Roles no longer worked. Solutions now needed to be negotiated with people who looked different than you and thought different than you. Relationships had to be created through emotionally honest exchanges that created clear communication rather than relationships of obligation and roles. Emotional honesty needed to become the foundation for every level of society including the self, marriage, family and government.
To use their emotions productively, people had to learn to understand themselves and others in a new way. A psychological revolution was needed to accomplish this transition. Character traits like weak, lazy or lacking motivation could not account for the root emotional cause for peoples’ actions. People had to learn the impact of both emotions and thinking in their behavior. They needed to understand the dynamics of emotional exchanges to prevent communication breakdowns and create compromises.
Even today in the new millennium and fifty years removed from the social revolution of the 60’s, we have yet to complete this psychological revolution.
We lack a psychology of emotion and still rely on an outdated model of mental health and human behavior. We don’t understand the powerful emotions that drive every level of society from the individual to any group we join.
Even at the most basic level of the individual, we don’t understand ourselves as emotional beings. We still hold on to the belief that we are thinking beings who happen to feel and fail to acknowledge that we are feeling beings who happen to think. We still think of mental processes when we think of the mind, rather than understand that the mind first organizes emotion to enable rational thought to occur.
Without embracing a new psychology of emotion, we don’t understand how to fight our fears either collectively or individually. In the 1980’s and 1990’s, we used distractions to avoid this psychological challenge. America got hooked on materialism as the answer. Money provided the solutions. If we had a good education, a good job nice house, good car, we were important.
But we were still afraid. We still didn’t understand how to sustain a marriage, raise a healthy child, or make a government responsive to the needs of the people. We pushed our children too hard to get into college, gave them college debt that was suffocating, and had few meaningful jobs to offer them. While we looked like we were doing fine, the high divorce rate, our adult children moving back home after college, increasing drug abuse and many other issues made us question our solutions. It was easy to be afraid that we were imposters who hadn’t really solved any of the relationship problems with which we had been struggling for the past 50 years.
I believe the solution to the current epidemic of fear lies in America’s history. America needs to return to its roots for the answers. Our Founding Fathers gave us a legacy that we have squandered, and it’s time to reclaim what they gave us.
At its core, the American Revolution was a psychological revolution. America was founded on the belief in the common man’s ability to know the truth and find an answer. This thinking offered a radically different philosophy of man. Mankind was seen as purposeful and reasonable, and therefore able to govern themselves. No kings or authority figures were necessary to tell people what to do. Thomas Jefferson, widely recognized as the philosophical leader of the American Revolution believed that the truth lies inside of people, and not outside of them. As Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence in 1776, “We know these truths to be self-evident…” (italics added).
Fear can drive us in the opposite direction and erode people’s ability to follow their values.
Even the Founding Fathers were not immune to the effects of fear. They did not follow their ideals at the Constitutional Convention of 1781. The ideal of “all men are created equal” fell victim to the fear of losing the Southern states in the Union. Slavery was permitted and women were denied the right to vote, neither position consistent with the ideal of equality but each resolving the fear of a potential split among the new states.
American ideals are being threatened today as they were in colonial times and just as vulnerable to the effects of fear. Fear drives us to look outside ourselves for answers to life’s challenges. To combat the high level of social fear today, we have to trust our natural reason and learn how to look within ourselves for the answers.
We now have to re-educate ourselves and apply a new psychology of emotion.
We have to understand ourselves primarily as feeling beings, not thinking beings. We must create an emotional base for rational thought. This psychological revolution begins within us, learning to look for the truth within. It requires us to understand the difference between our natural emotions and our learned emotions. We must learn to understand the concept of hidden emotion to find our natural emotions. To make decisions that are stable over the long-term, we must also understand that the learned emotions are the enemy within, will never go away, and must be managed to be true to our real selves.
After reorganizing ourselves, we need to reorganize our relationships around emotional honesty. Our marriages need to be based on shared experiences, recognizing that our partners see our emotions at times more clearly than we see them ourselves. Learning to blend different perspectives results in the shared bond based on the ideal of “two heads are better than one”.
The next level of reorganization involves the family.
The legacy to sustain the American psychological revolution falls to the American family. Families that operate in the parent-centered model will promote fear and dependency and not promote independence. Children reared in old-school families will learn compliance and fear disapproval. They will not trust their own natural reason and remain dependent on the family for decisions. Anxiety and depression will be bred from the failure to promote independence and self-reliance.
The new American family must become the school to teach the ideals of the American Revolution: independence and equality for all. This can only be accomplished in a people-centered family where all people matter.
Independence and equality need to be taught. Children are born into dependency and dependency remains a lifelong default setting. Independence is our true natural state that people desire but fear. Parents need to teach independence by teaching their children to listen to themselves and their own natural reason and to emotionally protect their truth from challenge by others.
While parents and children do not have equal power, each is treated as important and a contributor to the decisions made by the family. That does not mean that the parent abdicates their responsibility to set rules and boundaries and defers to the child. It means that the parent must be careful to balance the need to protect against the need to grow independence. This process is guarded by the emphasis on shared decision-making by the couple. By definition, if both parents’ agree, then the balance between protection and freedom will be achieved.
The process of shared decisions also ensures that the family teaches the principle of “equality for all”. The parents model equality through joint decision-making. Each opposing opinion is acknowledged, respected and resolved through negotiation and compromise. Similarly, children are encouraged to give voice to their opinions. Parents can solicit the opinions of children without surrendering their legal and moral requirement to set and enforce the rules. They can acknowledge the potential for the abuse of power by listening for the truth in the children’s reactions and modify their position if the children’s reactions make sense to both parents.
The Do’s and Don’ts To Teaching Independence and Self-Reliance
To reduce anxiety and depression in modern-day children, you want to promote independence and self-reliance. You want children who are rich in values and ideas rather than money.
Here is a list of the values that need to be taught to make children who are RICHER:
R = Resilient
Resiliency is necessary to learn by trial and error. A child must be able
to make mistakes and recover, rather than get lost in the shame of
failure and the pursuit of perfection.
I = Independent
Independent children are children who have been taught to listen to their
own natural reason through the parent acting as an emotional coach.
C = Creative
Creativity requires risk-taking, a value that grows through parental
H = Honest
An independent child is one who practices emotional honesty and can
stand up for themselves when challenged.
E = Empathic
Relationships are built through honest emotional exchanges. A child
must be able to read their own emotions to recognize and empathize
with the emotions of others.
R = Responsible
A responsible child is one who understands that freedom brings the
requirement of responsibility. Freedom is not free. It requires
responsible judgment to tell when the freedom of one encroaches on the
freedom of another.
Here is a list of 10 do’s and 10 don’t to raise these RICHER children:
List of 10 Don’ts
- Use character attacks
Character attacks are phrases that imply that the child has a defect in their character. Phrases like the ones listed below imply that there is a character weakness in the child. If used, the child will feel ashamed of themselves and learn to distrust their instincts.
“You are lazy”
“You’re just being weak”
“You have no self-control”
“You are mean”
- Use shame
Shame is one way to control a child but will result in a high level of damage to their belief in themselves. Examples of shame-based phrases are:
“How could you?”
“You are ridiculous”
“You should know better by now”
“You are an embarrassment to me”
“Good boys or girls don’t act that way”
- Promote perfection
Children learn by making mistakes. Over-reacting to mistakes sends a message that trial and error learning is not acceptable. Examples of reactions that promote perfection are:
“Haven’t you learned anything yet?”
“If you just listened to what I tell you, this wouldn’t happen”
“You just don’t try hard enough”
“If you really cared, you wouldn’t have done that”
- Demand blind obedience
A compliant obedient child is often a scared child who has surrendered their right to independence. Obedience may also indicate that a child is trying too hard to please their parents because of fears caused by an emotionally chaotic family life.
- Take children’s behavior personally
Children say or do things because they are acting out an emotion that they do not admit or feel. Often, a child acts impulsively without thought. If the parent takes the challenge personally, they can retreat or explode at the child. An implosion or explosion from the parent does nothing but create more anxiety that leads to depression.
Protecting the child from harm is a parent’s job. Overprotecting the child robs the child of experiences that teach self-reliance. There is a fine line between protecting and overprotecting. Joint decision-making by the partners is the key to establishing that line.
7.Collude with children’s fears
Children have natural fears that can be calmed with reassurances. Parents can easily make the mistake of joining with the child’s fears when they make choices to alleviate the fear. The classic case is having the child sleep in your bed to alleviate fears of the “boogie man in my closet”. You make the child’s fears turn real when you allow them to sleep in your bed.
- Make arbitrary decisions
If your answer to your child’s requests for an explanation is “Because I said so”, that answer will promote anxiety and depression. The child will feel like they are doing something wrong if they voice their opinion and even worse, believe that their opinion doesn’t matter to you.
- Create a role reversal
A role reversal occurs when the child and parent switch places without realizing it. This can happen when a parent complains to a child about their spouse or to one child about another. The child is asked to make the parent feel better when the opposite should be occurring. This can easily occur in the case of a parent with a medical problem, where the child is praised for being a good child and not acting up because the parent is unable to manage the child due to illness.
- Blame friends for your child’s behavior
Sometimes a child acts up because of peer pressure. In that case, the problem is that the child’s independence is not being nurtured effectively at home. Other times, the child seeks out friends who have similar problems. On the surface, it can appear the friends are the problem. Ask yourself why the child picks those friends and you will learn more about the emotions behind the actions than you will learn from blaming friends.
List of 10 Do’s
- Improve your emotional awareness
Your emotional world is difficult to understand. The knowledge of your emotional dynamics will give you a way to know why you do what you do, enable you to face your fears, and build a fighting spirit to overcome obstacles and challenges. How you understand others, including your children, will depend on how you understand yourself.
Emotions are hard to discern and hard to find. We suppress our emotions to survive the pressures in our families and spend a lifetime trying to get them back. Hidden emotion drives our choices without our awareness, leading to behavior that surprises us. Self-reflection is necessary to understanding your emotions, the emotions of your children and partner, and making healthy decisions.
- Practice shared decision making
Shared decision making with your partner, the proverbial “two heads are better than one” is a protection from an abuse of parental power and ensuring emotional honesty in your decisions. Children raised by parents who practice this concept will suffer far less anxiety and depression than children raised by parents who demand compliance and respect in a parent-centered model.
- Emotionally coach your children
Children need to be taught how their emotions get expressed in their behavior. With an increased understanding of your own emotion in yourself and your partner, you can extend that learning to educate your children. Children often express emotion indirectly. They hit rather than talk when they are mad. They cry when they are mad or sad or both. They need someone to explain to them how their emotions create tension that they relieve through their actions. These explanations need to be age appropriate, but children can learn quicker than adults if the explanations are simple and clear.
The care of a family pet helps the child to learn to nurture others and to form a bond with another living thing. The child will experience many emotions with their pet, providing life lessons about relationships and caring.
- The power of the role
When you become a parent, you adopt a role that has many responsibilities and much power to influence your children. When children approach adolescence, they need to practice learning how to disagree and be independent. Parents become test subjects to learn how to handle differences, manage conflict, and learn to compromise and negotiate. Teenagers don’t act up because they hate their parents. They are trying to learn to practice reasonable dissent. What they hate is when their parents take it personally and don’t realize that teaching conflict management is part of the job.
- Promote individuality and independence
Promote individuality any way you can as a parent. As early as possible, letting children pick their own clothes and hairstyle enables them to develop a strong sense of self. Going to sleep-away camps, weekends with grandparents, going away with friends, riding their bike to a friend’s house become small ways for a child to learn to fight their fears and embrace their independence.
- Ask for an opinion before you give one
Children will often ask their parents, “What do you think?” This phrase may indicate that the child is unsure of what to do. Before giving your opinion, find out what they think is the right answer and identify the source of their fears. If they resist and say, “I don’t know”, guide them to find an answer for themselves. Help them use natural reason and their emotions to come up with an answer before you give your opinion. These are teachable moments to build independence that are often missed by parents who want to help to excess and offer an opinion too quickly.
- Develop a dream to use their talents
Every child is born with a set of gifts that are unique to that child. Uniqueness is what makes a human being so important and so rare. Children are often unaware of their talents and skills and do not assign them the level of significance that they deserve. They can take their gifts for granted because they don’t have a base of comparison. The child who knows their skills and where they fit in the world is a child who will have low anxiety and depression because they will value themselves and see a place for them in the world.
- Promote play and creativity
A healthy child is a child who lives their life in balance between work, love and play. Parents often emphasize the work and relationship parts and fail to realize the importance of play. Play enables the child to reduce stress and tension, especially if it involves being creative. Creativity promotes independent thinking and self-reliance as problem-solving is often based on thinking outside of the box.
- Teach peaceful dissent
Parents make the mistake of believing that their job is to educate their children to follow the rules. They forget that another part of the job is to teach the child when to challenge the rules, and even when to break the rules. A child needs to learn when it is okay to speak up and challenge, even if the authority figure does not allow it. If all dissent from a child is seen as “backtalk”, the child will lose their voice, become anxious whenever conflict appears, and become more hopeless and helpless in the face of problems.
Dr. Stephen Van Schoyck is a clinical psychologist who has been in private practice in Bucks County, PA since 1984. For more information on his approach to emotional health, enroll in his monthly newsletter found at the top of his website’s homepage.