By Amy Ludwig VanDerwater
A friend recently shared, “Two college age women I know are bedridden from depression.” Both were accepted to impressive universities, began school, and crumpled. This is a familiar story, one which points to the anxiety and depression facing many of our children.
Adults complain that young people are “always on their phones,” yet children and adolescents say that we do not look at them when they speak. While we play games and update statuses, our children are alone. Many suffer. Many worry. Some turn this suffering and worry outward, harming others. And some turn this suffering and worry inward — shiny on the outside, silently wounded.
What do our children and adolescents worry about? Usual concerns swirled with a few current issues create a perfect storm.
Some young people worry about injustices they experience or see. Why am I treated unfairly based on my race, religion, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, or disability? How can I be an ally to others? Why are we still having these conversations?
Some young people worry about their appearance. Scrolling social media, they wonder. Am I thin enough? Should I use an app to fix the contours of my face and body? If I wear this, will I get more followers?
Some young people worry about climate change. What will happen to the animals? How will weather patterns change? Do adults even care? Is there a point?
Some young people worry about school shootings. Am I safe here? Where are the windows? The doors? Do I need to worry about the kid in my third period class?
Some over-tested young people worry about a perfect resumé. Will my grades get me into a big-name school? Should I do this activity because it looks good? What am I trying to win? When will I have won? How can I be perfect when I am so tired?
One teenager I know confided, “It is not enough to be a good person. You have to be perfect.”
Mindful minutes, character education programs, and anti-bullying assemblies are fine, but you cannot stop internal bleeding with a Band-Aid. So how can we take care of our young people in daily ways? What can we do to help them find beauty and meaning in this still-enchanting world?
Listen. We can listen. We can model putting away our devices. We can look into the eyes of this next generation as they speak.
Act. We can act on issues we believe in, demonstrating that we care about the future and that we live in alignment with our values.
Offer meaningful work. We can teach our children how to fix a car, garden, cook, build, and help others. Knowing how to do and make things grows one’s sense of agency.
Stop pushing. We can appreciate our children and adults for who they are, not for what they do. We can stop checking online grades and comparing accomplishments.
Remember the arts. We can offer spaces and inexpensive materials for our students to make and create art and music and dance. Not for a contest, not to win. Just to do.
We can each think of different ways to cherish our children. Reflecting on my own life and age, I strive to be a wiser adult: one who works to keep young people safe, one who values their ideas, one who lives with gratitude, one who cups hope in my hands.
Amy Ludwig VanDerwater is a children’s book author who lives in Holland, N.Y.