There seem to be more teenagers than ever before living with a debilitating degree of anxiety. A study by the National Institute of Health recently showed that one in three teenagers will experience an anxiety disorder, and anxiety is now considered the number one mental health problem in the U.S.
I’m sure there’s a long list of things that contribute to teenagers feeling so anxious including not enough sleep, too much time staring at screens, not enough exercise, social media, high expectations to achieve, puberty, genetics, poor diets, and the fact that our world seems pretty scary, but I think the biggest cause of social anxiety is teenagers’ fears of being judged, embarrassed, and ridiculed.
The courage to live bigger
Most of the teenagers who come to camp with a diagnosis of social anxiety are some of my favorite people. They are sweet, sensitive, kind and introspective. Unfortunately, they are also way too concerned with what they imagine other people might think about them. These worries about social approval and all the self-consciousness that comes with it can make them stop doing all the things that they really want to do, including making friends, trying new things, relaxing and being themselves. Their lives become a lot smaller at a time when they should become bigger. How can we help them find the courage to take the kinds of calculated risks that will help them discover more about themselves? How can we help them connect more with others and begin creating the lives they want to create?
I know it can feel bleak when anxiety seems to be stopping our teens in their tracks, but I also know that social anxiety can be overcome, and I’ve been watching teenagers do it at camp for a long time. I’ve heard that anxiety is the gap between the present and the future, and at camp, we are able to create a space where teens can relax and live more in the present.
A safe container
When teenagers recognize they are not being judged and that it’s perfectly o.k. to sometimes feel confused, insecure, clueless, and make mistakes without being put down or humiliated, it frees them to show who they really are. When they get that others are there to support them with kindness, friendship, and love, they can let go of many of their defenses, share their gifts, choose freedom over safety, love over fear, and connection over isolation.
I’m sure that convincing socially anxious teens to come to camp for the first time can be quite a challenge. I’ll write my next blog with some ideas about that, but if you want to talk about it, you can join our Facebook Group to support parents of teens with anxiety, or reach out to me directly, maybe I can help.