Is Your Teen Having a Pre-Life Crisis?

Parenting expert Jennifer Kolari explains how the pandemic is accelerating a downturn in mental health in teenagers.

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic started threatening our collective mental health, one age demographic was starting to show warning signs, and at an alarming rate. The number of children under 18 on antidepressant prescriptions has climbed more than 35 percent over five years, and Canada’s youth suicide rate is now the third highest in the industrialized world.

The worries of this age group are broad, according to children’s mental health experts. Anxiety in this group can be caused by worrying about bigger societal issues like climate change, to more personal fears, such as worrying they’ll never be able to afford to buy a home, not knowing how to fail, or how to communicate effectively (not over social media). Then a pandemic comes along and compounds everything: The Kids Help Phone organization says it saw a more than a three-fold spike in emergency calls last year, after the lockdown was announced in March.

Now parenting expert Jennifer Kolari is ringing an alarm bell of her own. All of this turmoil and anxiety adds up to a “pre-life crisis” among teens and young people, she says, which can lead to teens and young adults becoming paralyzed by these fears, and becoming unengaged in their own lives.

We spoke with the child and family therapist and the author of You’re Ruining My Life!: Surviving the Teenage Years With Connected Parenting, about this term, what she sees in her practice and where we go from here.

(Related: How Can I Make Sure My Kid Has a Healthy Relationship With Food?)

It seems like parents have never been so involved in their children’s lives and yet we’re seeing unprecedented numbers of kids suffering from depression and anxiety. Why?

Like anything else in our world, things swing and polarize, and parenting is no different. If you go back to the ’60s, Dr. Spock and the “Let your kid cry” theories ruled. There was a philosophy that kids needed a colder kind of parent to know who’s boss. Then it swung very, very wildly the other way, and we heard that “no is a bad word,” and “children should have a say on what’s going on in the family.” We have swung so far the other way that kids have too much power, they have too much say, they don’t feel like anyone’s actually in charge, so you’re going to see an increase in anxiety, depression and even ADHD-like symptoms.

The other layer is social media. Teenagers who are very depressed or super anxious, are all talking to each other about it, so that’s the viewpoint they’re getting back from the world. They’re talking about how unwell they are and how depressed they are and what medications they’re on. It’s good that they’re talking to each other about mental health issues and it’s good that the stigma is gone, but sometimes you start to feel very hopeless and that nobody’s feeling good — and that there’s no point to try to feel better, because nobody does. Sometimes it helps to give your kid a script, like, “I love you very much. This feels big to me. You need to talk to your mom, or you need to talk to a counsellor at school.”  It’s a huge and heavy emotional load for teenagers who are feeling horrible themselves and trying to take care of each other.

What kind of pressure on teens are you seeing as a result?

What we’re seeing now is a pre-life crisis. An increasing number of teens and young adults do not have the emotional tools and the neurological hardware to handle the bumps in life, because we didn’t give it a chance to develop. When they were younger, the bumps were smoothed out by their parents. Parents have been tutoring them, telling them they can do anything they want, winning trophies for showing up. And kids are smart. They know they shouldn’t win a trophy just because they showed up at a karate tournament.

The bumps that we experienced in life are supposed to be there. Those contours, that contrast, are there so we can practice life. So later when life happens — and it always does, with breakups, losing a job, not making the team, whatever — you have neurological hardware built up in your brain to handle upset and sadness.  When they get older, some are literally paralyzed and afraid to move out on their own, terrified that they’re not going to be successful.

(Related: 6 Things Parents Say that May Trigger Disordered Eating in Kids)

How has the pandemic exacerbated the situation?

For teenagers, it has upturned their lives. They’re desperate to see each other and they’re feeling isolated, particularly the ones who aren’t physically in school.

And yet, some of the teachers I’m speaking to, and the kids that I work with, say that they’re not even turning their cameras on during online learning. So they’re not even seeing each other. It drives teachers crazy but they kids don’t want to be seen in that environment — they’re all in that stage where they’re embarrassed.

Teenagers have a higher amount of anxiety anyway and it’s really tough on parents, particularly when you have a child that is not moving forward and is stuck…in the basement or on the couch. Video gaming also plays into this. Because that’s a world you can control.  That’s a world where there is a real time instant response to a decision you make. So I’m seeing these teens becoming increasingly stuck in the video world, which is going to get more intense and sophisticated.

What are other ways you’re seeing this isolation and anxiety manifest?

It’s avoidance. It’s social anxiety. It’s major sleep issues. Many of these kids are up all night — they go to bed at seven in the morning and they sleep all day. Or they refuse to do anything school related; school phobia is a very big problem.

Many of them have major social anxiety, because social media has caused them to lose the ability to have conversations with each other. That’s become even more pronounced during the pandemic due to social isolation.

And then layering everything on top of it — everyone is more anxious. Everyone is unnerved, no one knows when life is going to go back to normal. But it’s not just about the pandemic. When I was a kid, we didn’t really have to worry about things like global warming. Teenagers today are literally thinking to themselves, am I even going to have kids? Is the world going to be inhabitable when I’m 30? This is what they’re thinking about and worrying about at night and we don’t understand, as parents, how heavily this weighs on this generation. This generation is actually very wise and very well-informed, and really take these issues very seriously.  They’re questioning the financial system, the education system which is 200 years out of date. They are carrying this all around.

(Related: How to Know If Your Anxiety Is “Normal”)

What can parents do to help their teens through all this uncertainty and anxiety?

Parents are really stuck. They’re thinking, “Do we just wait and hope that they’re going to wake up one morning and decide to participate in life?”

To a certain extent, you should set some heavy limits, but you also need to re-establish a bond, which can be difficult to do. But you need that foundation and buy-in, otherwise the limits you have to set are going to be experienced as you as the parent just being mean.

I was working with one family and their 17-year-old son who had been staying up until 7 a.m. every night playing video games. The parents started locking up his computer at night and they had a conversation with him, explaining that he had a right to a roof over his head, love, education, healthy food — but everything else was a privilege. Video games, internet, a cell phone, having access to the car, and so on. He would have to earn things like video game time or money for things like attending class, exercising or doing chores.

I certainly recommend therapy, but you can’t always get your teenager to go. There are also life coaches and educational coaches who can be really helpful. It’s super for kids to have a mentor where someone who’s not their parent is giving them guidance and advice. And parents also need their own expert in parenting to help them through it, if they think their child is falling off the deep end.  Anxiety is usually behind it and it is a beast. It is a very hungry emotion that likes to be fed and the more you give into it the bigger it gets.

A lot of kids, especially boys, don’t even realize it’s anxiety. Just having them understand their own emotions, that they can control their emotions instead of their emotions controlling them is a really, really important thing. They see other teenagers struggling with it too, so they think this is just how it is. But you can control your feelings and you can rewire your brain.

Next: Why Is It So Hard to Find a Therapist Who Gets Me?

Originally Published in Best Health Canada