This article was written with the help of my friend John Thurman, M.Div., M.A. Counselor, Speaker, Author, Crisis Response Specialist.
When I was a young mom with toddlers, never did I imagine that one day my children would be going to schools where they could potentially face a mass shooting or be surrounded by peers so hopeless that substance abuse or suicide seemed to be the only answers. Yesterday, my high school senior had not one but two separate lockdowns at her school. Reports of a man with a gun in the area prompted this action. Then this morning, my younger daughter, who is a junior at a different high school, texted to tell me that there had been another student death. This was the second in the last few weeks.
My heart leaps in my chest every time my cell phone rings and I see that the call is coming from one of my children. Worries of potential car accidents or scary news sometimes replace rational thought. I have, undoubtedly, been traumatized by the incidents of life that have unfolded around us over the last few years.
Coping with the difficulties of life is something I must do. Thankfully, I come from a generation (Gen X) that learned to adapt to rapid changes in society. From huge technological shifts to horrors like the explosion of the Challenger or the September 11 attacks, we’ve known nothing but upheaval since early childhood. Learning to cope is a survival skill that was forced upon us.
My unscientific and nonprofessional observation is that children in both Gen Z and Gen Alpha have very few coping skill. They have known nothing but instant access to anything and everything. Food, technology, travel, and communication can all be summoned with the push of a few buttons (most likely through an app). So, when confronted with trauma or tragedy, they want instant relief from pain and discomfort. That, unfortunately, is not how life works.
While it may seem great that we’ve created a world where we can get what we want faster and more cheaply than ever before, I don’t know that we’ve considered the ramifications to our children. No and wait are words seldom used anymore. So, naturally, when adverse circumstances befall our kids, they don’t know how to handle situations that may not be quickly resolved.
As parents and community leaders, we would be wise to examine how we might introduce coping skills to a generation that is desperate for this type of education, whether it acknowledges it or not. And beyond just teaching young people to cope, I would love to see us create a culture of hope, where we set a tone of expectation for abundant life that can come through the process of weathering life’s storms.
We have very little control over the suffering our children will be exposed to. However, we can teach the lessons that suffering can produce endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope.
John, what are your thought?
I am afraid that with the pressure of instant everything, our society is setting itself up for tremendous failure. Dr. Jean Twenge, a psychologist and expert on intergenerational differences, stated in her book iGeneration that the iGen, born in and after 1995, is the first group born with instant access to smart devices. She notes that members of the iGen demonstrate that they experience a higher degree of depression, anxiety, and suicide than Millenials did at the same age. Her research also notes that there is an interesting correlation between the rise of adolescent depression and suicide between 2010 and 2015 and the corresponding rise of smart device use of this same time period.
Now, depression and suicide have many causes: genetics, family environments, bullying, and trauma, etc. can all play a role (see, for example, the University of Utah’s National Center for Veteran Studies’ comprehensive list of the multiple levels of suicide risks). Some young people would experience mental health problems no matter what era they live in. But some vulnerable teens who would otherwise not have mental health issues may have slipped into depression because of too much screen time, not enough face-to-face social interaction, inadequate sleep, or a combination of all three.
Let’s look at just one of those last three factors. Teens of the iGen are generally sleeping less than those of previous generations, and teens who spend more time on their phones are more likely not to get enough sleep. So, smartphones are contributing to less sleep, which alone could be a contributing factor in the increase of depression and suicide.
The factor of inadequate problem-solving skills deserves an even closer look. Research has found that during periods of crisis, people vulnerable to making suicide attempts struggle to solve their problems, especially when the strategies and solutions that worked for them in the past do not seem to work in the present situation. A person who cannot think of other options may continue to use the old strategies even though they do not work. As a result, the person gets stuck in a vicious cycle. Over time, their emotions become more and more intense and they start to feel trapped and hopeless. As tunnel vision begins to set in, they lose the ability to take a step back and see their situation from a different perspective, and their risk for making a suicide attempt increases.
Thanks John! These are hard things to hear, but critically important to understand.
I can’t tie this up with a pretty bow and offer a quick solution. We need to continue to engage in conversation about how best to help our children navigate this very rocky path.
If you or a loved one needs immediate help for a crisis situation, don’t hesitate to contact one of the agencies below.
Crisis Line 1-855-662-7474
TTY access 1-855-227-5485
Warm Line 1-885-466-7100
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline