Millennial Depression: The New Separation Anxiety

Millennial Depression: The New Separation Anxiety
By Kaitlin Renee 

I remember her words rolling around in my head, making lots of noise but not really making any sense. I felt numb. Betrayed.

Your dad and I…

Separation…

Living here now…

Need time and space…

My third-grade self didn’t understand why the two people in my life who were supposed to be together forever were separating. I felt tears slide down my cheeks, but I didn’t know how to sift through all the information. All I knew was that things were going to be different.

I turned away from my mom’s pained gaze and walked up the foreign steps. She had decided to enlighten my sister and me in this new guest house she had rented when she had made the decision to move out. It wasn’t a proper house, it wasn’t a home. It was some walls and a roof sheltering us from the Michigan weather. She was moving out of my childhood home and into this shack of a living space, away from Dad, away from a complete family.

That was the day I realized that if you give people a chance to come into your life and be a significant part of it, you’re simultaneously giving them the power to hurt you.

As a separated couple, they would soon be unable to afford that childhood home and would uproot my little sister and me to the suburbs, away from everything we had ever known. Half the week would be spent with Mom, and the other half with Dad. If I forgot something at the house I just came from, I was out of luck unless I could convince a parent to drive to the ex’s house (not likely). That meant I carried around a mass of clothes back and forth between the two, because I wanted to make sure I had options available at all times. I’ve basically lived out of a suitcase for almost ten years, moving in between the two houses that could never quite become homes.

My story is not unique. Divorcestatistics.org estimates that the current divorce rate in America is between 40-50%, higher than it’s ever been. Most of those broken couples come from Generation X, who happen to be the parents of us Millennials. In his article “Functional Families in Modern America,” Dr. Allen Weiss noted that children of divorced parents are seven times more likely to suffer from depression than children from a united home. So is it any wonder then that CBS reports that the millennial generation has a reported depression rate of about 20%, compared to the 14% of the generation before us, and 12% of the generation before them?

Children with divorced parents often suffer feelings of abandonment and insecurity as well as anxiety due to the at-home trauma. These feelings can easily lead to severe depression if not taken care of. The problem is that most children suffering are often misunderstood by their parents; rather than seeing their aggressive, withdrawn, and often stand-offish behavior as being precursors to depression, parents see these as being typical teen attitude problems that can be solved with discipline.

Our parents want to know why we’re so closed off, why we’re obsessed with our phones and our laptops, why we’re so on edge… Is it really that hard to understand?

I’m not saying that so many of us millennials are depressed solely because of parental divorce, because that’s not the only factor. But it certainly is a major stepping stone for many of us.

We all desire connection – it’s a part of the human experience. In the earliest of life stages, family is at the core of your web of connections. A weird imbalance is formed in the middle of this web as divorce slices through these core strings where your family is supposed to intertwine, and this only makes it harder to create and maintain successful relationships with others in the future. When we should feel trust in a relationship, what we more often feel is skepticism. While I can’t speak for everyone in the millennial generation who grew up the child of a broken home, I can certainly say that I have difficulty in relationships as a result of that experience.

As a matter of fact, a social science investigation on the impact of parental divorce on adult relationships found that “participants from divorced families indicated a greater fear of being hurt/rejected” and that there was “less trust toward a variety of intimate relationships.”

My parents were together for sixteen years before calling it quits. While my boyfriend seems like Mr. Right now, there will likely come a time – be it six months from now, a year from now, sixteen years from now – that he or I decide differently. And I can never get that out of my head.

Friendships must work the same way, right? I mean, with divorce, there are legal papers and money and sometimes kids involved. Not to mention the fact that you’re breaking vows that you said in front of a huge group of people on your wedding day. With friends, none of that is stopping you, so they’ll probably leave one day too. What’s the point of relationships if they’ll so easy to leave behind?

This is the problem with a lot of us millennials – we have divorced kid syndrome when it comes to relationships. Which is probably why we’d rather be online than actually putting ourselves out there, looking at pictures of our friends or editing our own photos until we deem them acceptable to present to the public.

You go on Facebook and see picture after picture of your ‘friends’ hanging out with their friends at the beach, the mall, the movies, Disneyland, wherever. These pictures, for a reason you’re not completely sure of, make this bubble of jealousy and desire rise up inside you. You want relationships like these. You want to be doing picture-worthy things in picture-worthy places with picture-worthy people. But you’re in your room, on your computer, alone.

You feel like your life is pointless and pathetic in comparison to the edited versions of everyone else’s.

Here’s the problem. Those pictures don’t include the moment Jill got into a fight with her boyfriend, or that time Jane walked into her house to find her father drunk again and yelling at her mother, or when James found out his girlfriend was pregnant and he wasn’t ready. Nobody hangs broken pictures on the wall, and nobody puts anything less than picture perfect on their social media accounts.

The same feelings of abandonment and insecurities that developed from being the child of a broken household carry on easily to these social parts of our lives. Not only are we struggling to make connections in a virtual world, we’re also comparing our sub-glamorous realities to the ‘perfect’ internet fantasy lives of those we are friends with or are following online. Best case scenario, it makes you a competitive Instagram guru with pictures of you doing yoga and eating exotic fruits and watching sunsets (who is taking these pictures of you anyways?) on every social media website known to man. Worst case scenario, it makes you realize how alone you really are and you ingrained desire for human connection leaves you feeling empty and pathetic.

The problem for us millennials is that we’re still human. And being human in today’s world is hard. We want so badly the connections that are becoming harder and harder to obtain in our modern society. We need human connection, but often we are being met with our own skepticism instead of trust or a screen instead of a face. This disparity between what we need as social human beings and what we’re getting is causing a pandemic of depressed millennials. Many of us have separation anxiety from relationships we haven’t even developed.


About the Author: Kaitlin Renee
 
Kaitlin is currently attending Michigan State University, pursuing degrees in Journalism and Professional Writing. She’s passionate about storytelling and looks forward to a career in which she can give a voice to those without the opportunity or ability to share their own. 
 

 

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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