Traditionally, articles about risk and young people have focused on understanding why they might be prone to risky behaviour and how to make them more risk aware, more cautious. Those issues are still pertinent. But today, we have a new problem: how to help the young manage anxiety about risks that are all too obvious to us all, through the pandemic and the increasingly apocalyptic announcements of catastrophic climate change and mass extinctions.
Rates of anxiety and depression have doubled in the past 2 years (Office for National Statistics, 2021), affecting all age groups but particularly teenagers. This is scarcely surprising: the pandemic and climate change present profound existential challenges to us all. Though individuals differ in susceptibility (Ellis et al, 2017), teenagers are somewhat prone to existential anxiety even at the best of times (Berman et al, 2006). Recent research suggests that the current woe in young people often amounts to despair (John, 2020).
How are we to help the young manage the anxiety and depression provoked by the current uncertainties of our world? Such stresses are far from unique in human history – this is not the first pandemic, nor the first dramatic climate change our species has experienced. But they are unprecedented in our societies. For 70 years, we in the WEIRD (western, educated, industrialised, rich, democratic) world have enjoyed a level of benign stability in our circumstances that our ancestors (and many others around the world today) could not have imagined. Our young have never faced the kinds of threat posed by the pandemic or climate change. For that matter, the same is true of most of the adult population: we simply have not had the kinds of experience which would teach us how to cope with the uncertainties and threats we face today – which makes it harder to know how to help children and young people.
‘Rates of anxiety and depression have doubled in the past 2 years, affecting all age groups but particularly teenagers. This is scarcely surprising: the pandemic and climate change present profound existential challenges to us all.’
Avoiding false hope
The strong temptation in any crisis is to reassure: to tell them that everything is going to be okay, that things will go back to normal. However, such glib reassurance is dishonest. Both pandemic (this and the next ones) and climate change look set to change all of our lives, in fundamental ways, for a very long time if not forever. Fostering false hope may do more harm than good. There is evidence that misplaced optimism is damaging – exposing children and young people to the probability of repeated disappointment, stress and despair, and also fostering inappropriate, even dangerous judgments and behaviour (Little, 2006; Thornton, 2019). What is needed now is a more nuanced approach to countering despair and fostering hope.
History offers clear lessons as to what that nuanced hope should be. Crises (such as the black death, Spanish flu, or the climate change that changed sea levels thousands of years ago) generally create social change, often radical social change in their wake – and the present crises are likely to do the same. Historically, after such events things were different, but surprisingly often they were better. The reassurance young people need is exactly that: their challenge is not to cling to old assumptions, but to find new goals to structure life in the changed circumstances.
Thinking positive, enabling functional hope
The sheer scale of the crises facing us can easily generate feelings of helplessness and despair, undermining hope in the future. Hope is essential for mental wellbeing (Snyder, 2002). As noted, false hope can be dysfunctional, undermining resilience. Recent decades have seen rising research into what healthy hope actually is, and how it can be fostered. The framework for much of this research was set by Snyder (2002), who identifies three elements in functional hope: clearly conceptualised goals, specific strategies to reach those goals, and an effective sense of agency. In other words, realistic goals, ways of achieving them, and the confidence to try. Encouraging the young to develop this approach to hope has been shown to be effective in boosting mental health (Marques et al, 2011). The goals the young (or any of us) espouse may have to change in the light of circumstances, but we can still be empowered to engage life positively.
‘… today, we have a new problem: how to help the young manage anxiety about risks that are all too obvious to us all, through the pandemic and the increasingly apocalyptic announcements of catastrophic climate change and mass extinctions.’
Developmental change in managing hopes and fears
Are the young able to adopt the nuanced functional strategies that are needed to rebuild hope, in difficult times?
Very young children may not have sufficient understanding of the issues, nor sufficient capacity to adopt such strategies without substantial help from their elders, and good role models of a positive approach. It is worth noting in this context that adult anxiety is infectious, so managing our adult anxieties is also important.
‘There is evidence that misplaced optimism is damaging – exposing children and young people to the probability of repeated disappointment, stress and despair, and also fostering inappropriate, even dangerous judgments and behaviour.’
Adolescents, on the other hand, may well grasp the issues. And as they work for an adult identity and independence, they may be much less willing to accept adult advice. But how capable are they of managing hopes and fears in an effective way? Teenagers have traditionally been seen as impulsive, prone to unreflective risk taking. Recent research suggests a neurological basis for this (Blakemore, 2018): different areas of the brain mature at different rates. Those concerning social sensitivity mature earlier than those involved in self-regulation (planning, risk assessment, impulse control and so forth). It has been suggested that this leads the young into social, sexual and other adventures before they have the capacity to manage effective risk assessments or control impulses (Casey et al, 2008). Does this mean that trying to teach teenagers to manage risks effectively is futile? But that idea is very controversial (Romer et al, 2017). In fact, research shows that as individuals, the young are often able to plan and manage their reactions in risky situations as responsibly as their elders (Blakemore, 2018). It is specifically when they are in social groups that teenagers embrace riskier and more impulsive behaviours – suggesting that peer pressure, the desire to belong, to fit in can undermine individual reason.
‘… Snyder … identifies three elements in functional hope: clearly conceptualised goals, specific strategies to reach those goals, and an effective sense of agency.’
The implication of the neurological research is not that teenagers cannot develop the assessments, plans and strategies that underpin functional hope in the face of risks and threats such as COVID-19 and climate change. Rather, the implication is that in supporting their efforts, it is important to engage the peer group rather than just the individual. And indeed, what has to develop for all of us is a new shared perspective on the current situation, a culture that accepts that life is nowhere near as safe and predictable as we have long supposed – but that there are, nonetheless, strong grounds for a positive, functional hope.
Countering anxiety and depression in these difficult times
Functional hope is a powerful antidote to anxiety and depression (Snyder, 2002; Marques et al, 2011). But how to foster it, in a world where it is so easy to feel helpless despair? Perhaps the most important element of hope as defined by Snyder is a sense of agency. ‘Yes I can’ motivates. Empowering the young is important. Immediately, we can foster a sense of agency by encouraging the young to make everyday decisions over issues they can control, in this new world. Longer term, it is these new generations who will play key roles in rebuilding the new culture, the new society. Now is the moment to encourage them to share discussions of what that future might be, and how it might be achieved.