“Let Them Be”: Diminishing Anxiety to Resist the Adolescent Mental Health Crisis
By: Rev. Dr. Angella Son, Ph.D.
The mental health of adolescents has become a critical issue today, even before the COVID-19 pandemic. Anxiety disorders stand out as the most prevalent issue faced by youth today in the United States. Kathleen Ries Merikangas and her colleagues performed a nationally representative face-to-face survey of 10,123 adolescents ages 13 to 18 in the United States (the National Comorbidity Survey—Adolescent Supplement NCS-A). The study results indicate that “[a]nxiety disorders were the most common condition (31.9%), followed by behavior disorders (19.1%), and substance use disorders (11.4%)… [t]he median age of onset for disorder classes was earliest for anxiety (6 years), followed by 11 years for behavior, 13 years for mood, and 15 years for substance use disorders” (Merikangas et al., “Lifetime Prevalence of Mental Disorders in U.S. Adolescents,” p. 980). This study demonstrates how anxiety disorders can begin early in childhood and shows that almost one in three adolescents will experience anxiety disorders. Moreover, adolescents who may not experience any mental health issues still significantly experience anxiety as they negotiate their transition into adulthood in their process of identify formation, i.e. self-experiences of sameness and continuity must now be confirmed as such by others (Erikson, Childhood and Society, pp. 261-263). On top of the current state of anxiety due to the pandemic and its impact on youth, this crisis has worsened even to the level of devastation. Thus, anxiety is one of the most crucial aspects of the life of adolescents with or without the pandemic.
One of the main causes of the anxiety produced in youth is the narcissistic (self) needs of parents wanting the best for their children. While wanting the best for their children itself is noble, even good things such as wanting the best for children can harm youth if they are imposed on them to meet the needs of parents themselves without letting youth self-determine what is best for them. (For discussion on narcissistic needs, see Kohut, The Restoration of the Self.) While parents usually love and care for their teenagers, their own needs for their children to be healthy, to display good characteristics, to succeed in school, to have good friends, have a purpose in life, and to pursue their dreams with intention and diligence, etc. can impede their adolescent’s own efforts to become their own person. What is ironic is that parents are not aware of their own narcissistic needs that shape their thoughts on what is best for their adolescent children. Instead, parents think that their expectations are intended for the betterment of their children and to help them succeed, rather than for their own personal fulfillment. As a result, parents feel it is their duty to tell their children what to do and not to do.
Unfortunately, however good their intentions, when parents intrude or intervene in their adolescent’s life, more anxiety is produced in both parents and their children, and less opportunities are given to adolescents to make their own choices. More anxiety means less chances for adolescents to develop differentiation—the ability to be a self-directed person while staying connected to others (Kerr & Bowen, Family Evaluation, pp. 112-133). As a result, various types of mental health issues, including anxiety disorders, distress adolescents and prevent them from leading a God-given, meaningful, and thriving life. What parents should come to grips with is that their good intentions generate the opposite results because their own narcissistic needs interfere with their children’s efforts to become their own persons. I encourage parents let go of their own anxieties about how good of a person adolescents will grow up to be, and let them be so that God can help them become who they are and what they are as God created them. I thus suggest that the best expression of love for adolescents is to let them be. While boundaries should be drawn for adolescents for what should absolutely not be violated, they should be left alone to navigate their own personhood One way to do it is to encourage a spirituality of joy in life that advances the centrality of our relationship with God and others for us to become joyfinders who can claim their authentic selves and whose life represents self-assurance and vitality (Son, Spirituality of Joy: Moving Beyond Dread and Duties).
“Let Go and Let God” is what we can practice to “gift” our anxiety over to God and “Let Them Be” is how we can express our love and care for our youth. We add to our prayers by saying, “God, please take my anxiety about how my children will grow up to be; God, please strengthen me to overcome my own needs to define what is good for my children; God, help me to accept the fact that you created my children to be their own persons; and God, I accept that I am to give time and space to my children for them to become their own persons and to lead a life with joy and vitality.” Amen.
This article is an excerpt. You can read the full article here.
1. Erikson, Erik. Childhood and Society. 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1963.
2. Kerr, Michael E., and Murray Bowen. Family Evaluation: An Approach Based on Bowen Theory.
New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1988.
3. Kohut, Heinz. The Restoration of the Self. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1971.
4. Merikangas, Kathleen Ries, Jian-Ping He, Marcy Burstein, Sonja A Swanson, Shelli Avenevoli, Lihong Cui, Corina Benjet, Katholiki Georgiades, and Joel Swendsen. “Lifetime Prevalence of Mental Disorders in U.S. Adolescents: Results from the National Comorbidity Survey Replication—Adolescent Supplement (NCS-A).” Journal of American Academy Child Adolescent Psychiatry 49, no. 10 (2010): 980-989.
5. Son, Angella. Spirituality of Joy: Moving Beyond Dread and Duties. Seoul, S Korea: Jeyoung
Rev. Dr. Angella Son, Ph.D.:
Angella Son is the Director of the Korean Care and Counseling Program at Blanton-Peale. She is a Professor of Psychology and Religion at Drew University.