The highest level of teenage sadness ever recorded
My kids are growing up and some days it makes me feel blue
I have a friend who read Stoic philosophy to his baby, and why not? Babies love to hear the sound of our voices; you can tell them anything at all as long as you say it gently or with a funny face. One time I read my son a court filing as he fell asleep in my arms.
But then our babies grow a little, stand up straight, and learn to speak and reason. Once they understand what we’re saying, the content of our speech matters quite a lot.
This doesn’t happen all at once. My children understood the tone of my voice before they understood the meaning of the words. The first joke I told them, inadvertently, was “No.” If I said it without enough firmness, or let myself crack a smile, they cackled at me. The disconnect between meaning and affect was enough to set them off.
Now the girls are 7 and the boy is 5. They all ask difficult questions — about nature, their bodies, death, and God. As a rule, my wife and I don’t shy away from these questions. We answer as simply and directly as we can. If they are old enough to ask, they are old enough to understand, and if our explanations are unsatisfactory then maybe we didn’t know what we were talking about anyway.
My son asks about crosses sometimes because we live in the South, where the landscape is absolutely bristling with them. So I’ve tried a few times to explain what we celebrate on Easter (I’ve spared him the gory details of how crucifixion works). The last time we talked about a cross, I told him that Jesus, who loves us, was killed on a cross but came back to life. I tried to tell him how the love of God is so great that we don’t have to be afraid of death. This went in one ear and out the other as far as I can tell.
There are some things I want to explain, but I know my children will have to grapple with them on their own terms and in their own time. I’ve told my daughters how I lost my old job. We’ve talked about voting, why it matters, and why it sometimes doesn’t matter. We’ve talked about how people get sick and die, but we haven’t offered any explanations why. We can lay a little groundwork for them now.
Most days we can handle the philosophical, theological, anatomical, and even political questions. The harder work is contending with our children’s rich and complicated emotional lives. We try, and I sometimes fail, to handle their feelings gently. There are times when they feel overwhelmed, and I wish that I could take away their sadness but I can’t.
We have seen our children’s sadness grow and change. First they endured the panicked sadness of infancy, of having basic needs and being unable to communicate them. As adolescents now, they often feel sad because they feel they’ve been wronged: Someone else has taken a pencil they were using, or dominated the conversation, or cheated in a game. They’ve seen us grieving the death of family members, and they’ve absorbed and metabolized that grief in their own ways.
We took our kids to a play place the other day, and they all hit it off with a girl about their age. She had the same name as one of our daughters, and they all thought it was a hilarious coincidence. When we were getting ready to leave, my daughter pulled me aside and said she was sad that she had met a new friend and that she would never see her again. I looked around. The girl and her family were gone. My daughter was probably right.
At the play place that day, I recognized a new type of sadness in my daughter. This was a sober-minded and mature sadness, tinged with resignation: “I made a friend, but she’s gone.” She didn’t cry about the fact, she only remarked on it and looked down at the ground.
I was glad she shared her sadness with me. I know that in a few years I won’t be the first person she wants to talk to, and she’ll probably be annoyed when I ask her why she’s looking blue. She’ll retreat inward, or call her friends, and I will no longer be the sounding board for her big feelings. That will be a new type of sadness for me too.
Sometimes I wonder which of our children will inherit my tendency toward depression and anxiety. I experienced what was probably my first depressive episode when I was in 11th grade, for reasons I don’t remember exactly. I remember someone (my youth pastor? a blog?) saying that 11th grade was a common year for people to experience their first psychiatric symptoms. I don’t know if that’s true.
Looking back, I had a good childhood. My parents loved me unconditionally, and they made sure I knew it. They couldn’t have kept me from spiraling into depression, any more than they could have kept me from being sad. What counted, when the time came, was their willingness to bear with me through it, even when I tried to shut them out.
I was thinking about teenage melancholy the other day when I read an April 11 piece in the “IDEAS” section of The Atlantic called “Why American Teens Are So Sad,” by Derek Thompson. I don’t know what I expected besides a shallow roundup of survey results and pop psychology, but that’s what it turned out to be.
“The United States is experiencing an extreme teenage mental-health crisis,” Thompson begins the piece. “From 2009 to 2021, the share of American high-school students who say they feel ‘persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness’ rose from 26 percent to 44 percent, according to a new CDC study. This is the highest level of teenage sadness ever recorded.” 1
(You might have seen the frightening line graph from this article, showing rates of teenage sadness rising slowly since 2009 and then spiking when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S. in 2020. It’s important to note that this graph was created by Derek and not by the CDC. It appears to combine longitudinal data from the biennial Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System [2009-2019] with one-time data from the Adolescent Behaviors and Experiences Survey [January-June 2021]. This is a mistake, from a statistical analysis standpoint. In the “Limitations” section of the ABES report he's referencing, CDC researchers specifically warn that one-time results from their 2021 COVID-specific survey cannot be compared with data from previous or subsequent surveys. You can’t draw that line, in other words.)
The story is riddled with speculation. The writer interviewed some psychologists, read some studies, and hazarded a few guesses about the causes behind teenage sadness: Instagram, bad news, bad parenting, not enough sleep, teens not getting their driver’s licenses. He linked to a few other thinkpieces as support for his thinkpiece.
Thompson offers no analysis of why LGBTQ teenagers self-reported sadness at higher rates than their peers. He gives no consideration to whether the widespread suffering and death of the pandemic might partly explain why some teenagers answered yes to the survey question, “During the past 12 months, did you ever feel so sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks or more in a row that you stopped doing some usual activities?” He recommends that parents try some elements of exposure therapy with their kids.
I can understand the desire for answers like the ones in this Atlantic piece. One day I’ll sit down and see a sullen teenager across the dinner table from me and wonder who they are and what they did with my sweet open-hearted baby. I’m sure I will be tempted to blame society.
I don’t know if I’ll be ready when the day comes. How could anyone be ready? It’s an ancient kind of sadness, but it feels brand new and terrifying.
The images in this issue are from Claude Monet’s Water Lilies series, in this order: The Clouds (1920–26), Green Reflections (1914-26), and Setting Sun (1920-26).
Here are some stray notes.
I’ve recommended it a few times before, but my favorite book about depression is The Noonday Demon by Andrew Solomon. Here’s a passage I underlined a few years ago, from p. 432-433:
[A]ll the medicine in the world can provide no more than a way for you to reinvent yourself. The medicine will not reinvent you. We can never escape from choice itself. One’s self lies in the choosing, every choice, every day. I am the one who chooses to take my medication twice a day. I am the one who chooses to talk to my father. I am the one who chooses to call my brother and the one who chooses to own a dog, and the one who chooses to get out of bed (or not) when the alarm goes off, and the one who is also sometimes cruel and sometimes self-involved and often forgetful … Thinking seems to me less persuasive evidence of being than does choosing.
If you would like to read something interesting about Easter, check out the liberation theologian Ignacio Ellacuria’s essay “The Crucified People,” which I heard about via The Magnificast, a good Christian socialist podcast. PDF link here.
I have a few interesting events coming up. On April 20th I’ll be participating in a town hall hosted by Furman University about the South Carolina legislature’s bills attempting to censor teachers on the subjects of race, sex, and gender. I’m not sure if it will be open to the public yet, but I’ll send out a link if it is.
If you happen to be in Charleston during the Spoleto Festival, I’ll be reading a new short story on June 4 at 5 p.m. as part of Blue Bicycle Books’ longstanding fiction tradition. It’s a free event in the alley behind the bookstore.
Finally, I have an update on my Freedom of Information Act request to the S.C. Department of Education, which I wrote about in last week’s newsletter. After the department’s FOIA spokesperson told me it would cost $318 to provide the superintendent and ombudsman’s emails containing the phrase “critical race theory,” I re-submitted the request on Friday, April 8, with a footnoted explanation of why the release of those documents is in the public interest. I also sent the request around to some teachers and professors across the state, who added their names to the bottom of it. You can read the request here if you like.
Well, the Department of Education got back to me on Monday with a new invoice for $242 — a $76 savings! The price should be $0. I asked for an explanation of how they arrived at the new figure and received this response:
The Department reviews FOIA requests on a case-by-case basis and determines who the lowest paid Department employee is who could reasonably complete the request. In this case, the Department has decided to charge a lesser hourly rate based on an internal debate and not on the requestor or the public interest.
In conclusion: ???