Unpacking the Anxiety of Generation Trauma

School shootings, achievement pressure, and bullying all contribute to anxiety.

Posted Nov 15, 2019

With adolescent anxiety on the rise, understanding triggers is crucial.
Source: Pixabay/Pexels

As news of yet another school shooting lights up the social media feeds of parents from coast to coast (and probably worldwide), it’s only a matter of time before the argument about how best to reduce gun violence in the United States begins. 

These arguments are inevitable, it seems, and packed with polarizing viewpoints. Though the conversations can feel like an endless loop both on social media and in the news media, change rarely results. 

Hands up.

Single file.

Follow the leader.

While some school districts work feverishly to build fences around schools, and others invest in empathy development, bullying prevention, and mental health, we have yet to find a way to create truly safe spaces for our children.

What we have right now is a generation of children blanketed in fear and growing up with trauma as their backdrop. From preschool to college, Generation Trauma is acutely aware that this is their normal. This is how their stories unfold, one school shooting at a time. 

Sadly, school shootings are one in a long list of stressors that negatively impact today's youth.

Research shows that the number of children and teens diagnosed with anxiety increased in recent years, with 2.6 million youth diagnosed with anxiety disorders in the United States. Some will argue that a better understanding of anxiety contributes to an increased willingness to seek help, and that’s certainly true. Normalizing anxiety and bringing it out of the shadows also encourages children and parents to seek help. These factors do not, however, paint the complete picture. 

Children and teens do encounter new and different stressors than previous generations, and they have limited resources to cope with them. To help this generation of young people, it’s essential that we meet them where they are and understand the stress and anxiety they are forced to manage on a daily basis.

Collective trauma

Whether or not a teen actually knows another teen directly affected by a school shooting, all youth are indirectly affected by school traumas. The emotional impact from school shootings has short and long-term effects on those who witness the event but also on communities outside of the area. In short, we all grieve and worry together.

It’s no big secret that teens use social media regularly, and their connections reach far beyond their own schools and neighborhoods. The reach of social media is such that many teens befriend friends of friends from all over the country. This makes each school shooting feel closer to home and increases the fear of imminent danger. It also results in shared grief among youth. 

Active shooter drills

"Run, hide, fight" is the new normal for kids and teens. Schools practice active shooter drills to help prepare kids for any emergency, just as they prepare for fires and natural disasters. While knowing what to do in an emergency is helpful, active shooter drills can feel overwhelming and scary for children and teens.

Hiding under desks and in classroom closets while teachers secure doors and windows triggers fears for kids of all ages, as these drills can feel real. In fact, according to a Pew Research Survey, 57 percent of teens worry that a school shooting will happen at their schools. The very drills meant to empower kids and teens to know what to do in an emergency are reminders that school shootings can occur anywhere.

The technology wars

Young people are growing up in a digital world, and conflicting messages in the media have many parents worried about the negative effects of too much time spent on devices of any kind. 

While one study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology points to cultural trends, including the increase in digital media and declines in sleep duration, as contributing factors to the increase in mood disorders among this generation of youth, another study published in Clinical Psychological Science found little evidence to support the narrative that digital technology use among adolescents is associated with elevated mental health symptoms. 

The information is confusing at best, and tweens and teens are caught in the crossfire. Many teens confide that when they use some platforms, they feel connected to peers and less lonely, while other platforms leave them feeling left out or like they don’t measure up. They hesitate to talk openly about these digital stressors for fear that parents will remove their devices. In the absence of proper support to help tweens and teens develop healthy relationships with technology, anxiety and loneliness can result. 

Achievement pressure

Everything teens do, from test scores to athletics to grades to music to theater performances, is high stakes these days. Extra-curricular activities, once a safe haven for kids to enjoy an area of interest and perhaps get a little exercise, are now considered vehicles to college acceptance, and the pressure to perform begins in elementary school.

Tutoring, once used to assist kids in need of a little extra help in a particular subject, is the new normal for many kids and teens. Today’s youth are shuffled from school to activities to tutoring (for everything from single subjects to test prep) on a daily basis. The message hidden beneath the surface is: Perform better.

The pressure to succeed begins early and morphs into a relentless task that wears down our youth, leaving them anxious, depressed, and exhausted. In fact, one study shows associations between achievement pressure and clinically significant depressive symptoms among older girls and internalizing symptoms and substance abuse among boys and girls. 

Bullying and cyberbullying

According to survey results from the Pew Research Center, 59 percent of teens report being bullied online, and 63 percent say it’s a major problem. According to national statistics, about 20 percent of kids between the ages of 12 and 18 have experienced bullying. 

Experiencing bullying firsthand (online or in-person) can contribute to increased stress and symptoms of anxiety and/or depression, but witnessing bullying also negatively affects youth. Feeling helpless on the sidelines and fear of becoming the next target can make school feel unsafe and overwhelming. 

This generation of kids and teens face high levels of stress and anxiety, and they need resources to cope. With trauma as their backdrop and a long list of stressors to overcome on a daily basis, our youth need support both at school and in the home to learn to thrive in a stressful world.