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Young and anxious: Why kids need to know it's okay to be average

Source: New Zealand Listener 20 August, article written by Sarah Catherall


Many parents are pushing their kids to be extraordinary, and social media and “perfect” peers are adding to that pressure. But experts say we should allow kids to be average.

Scarlett Kean seems to have the perfect life. Studying for a bachelor of creative enterprise at Unitec, the 19-year-old Aucklander is a talented artist and actor. In her teens, she excelled at a private school – ACG Parnell College – where she was also encouraged by her family to enrol in extracurricular activities.

Today, she has a part-time job at Auckland Museum, a partner and many friends. She lives with her close-knit family. However, for the past five years, Kean has battled anxiety and feelings of self-doubt. They are often so intense that she feels she can’t breathe. She also has panic attacks.

“A lot of what anxiety is is putting imaginary pressure on myself. At school, I had really high expectations of myself and I was often very disappointed with my results.”

Kean feels a societal pressure to be special or “extraordinary”, and she’s not alone. Counsellors and psychologists are increasingly concerned that our achievement-oriented society is putting undue pressure on young people, making them anxious and depressed. If they feel they’re not good at something, they’ll give up rather than persist.

Parents, the professionals say, contribute, along with a results-based education system and the pressure of a 24/7 online world. There are also concerns that young people aren’t being taught how to handle knock-backs and grief and, as a result of the positivity movement, are therefore expected to always be upbeat, despite hard times.

“Social media puts so much pressure on young girls to look beautiful and be smart, and that really affected how I viewed myself as a person. I would feel that if I wasn’t the kindest, most beautiful and most clever female, I wasn’t of value.”

It’s a point reiterated by US social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who told the Listener while in New Zealand last week that social media is contributing to an epidemic of anxiety and depression in teens, particularly girls.

“All kids are now being reinforced not by their parents or their teachers, but by their peers. They get constant little hits of dopamine, and fear and anxiety, and this is the cause of the problem, which is especially unhealthy to anyone, especially developing brains.’’

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