NBC News published an article recently about an effort at East Carolina University to meet the needs of its students by offering them an “Adulting” course – to teach them what they need to know in order to be self-sufficient adults. See the original article here.
One idea immediately jumped out at me. The university’s counseling center said in the past they used to see a lot more depression. For the past few years they have noticed a sharp uptick in the numbers of students seeking help for anxiety.
A lightbulb went on in my head as I read. I remembered a lecture I heard a few years ago by renowned trauma specialist Bessel van der Kolk. He told the story about a family that underwent a traumatic incident. There were several children in the family, including a nine-month old baby in the other room. Years later, it was that baby who was most impacted still with symptoms of trauma, completely undermining our assumption that children aren’t affected by what they are too young to understand.
Today’s college freshman were two- or three-year-olds that their parents scooped up and held close on that day fifteen years ago. Whether or not they were exposed to the images on TV, they were surely exposed to their parents’ fear and horror. Such strong emotions in their caregivers cannot help but have an impact on their developing brains.
Is is any wonder then, that they are experiencing anxiety in record numbers? Or that their parents, faced with their own unconscious anxiety from that day should earn the term ‘helicopter parents’? A parent’s one basic job is to keep their child safe. That day every parent watching learned how impossible that job really is.
So what can we do now with this understanding? Be a lot more compassionate, for one. If you read the comments to the article, many are filled with scorn for the students for being wimps, for their parents for not preparing them better and even for the school for attempting to address that lack of preparation in a proactive way.
Instead, what if we, collectively could remember how scared we were that day fifteen years ago? Could we have compassion for these kids who were too little to understand but absorbed the energy of the day anyway? How about for their terrified parents who understood all too well? Could we look on their later choices in light of this realization and instead of seeing spoiled entitlement, could we see with soft eyes and realize they were doing the best they knew to do the impossible?
I think we could.