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Do millennials experience more stress than other generations? You would think so if you believe the refrain of the Twenty One Pilots' millennial anthem, "Stressed Out":
"Wish we could turn back time, to the good ol' days / When our momma sang us to sleep / But now we're stressed out."
On a more scientific note, the number of college students reporting depression and anxiety has shown slow but consistent growth over the last five years, according to the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at the Pennsylvania State University.
In reality, life is not harder to navigate, although millennials perceive that it is, says Gregg Henriques, a clinical psychologist and James Madison University professor. "What we are seeing is an emergence of a generation that is adjusting to their surroundings with lots of stress, depression and anxiety at greater levels," he says.
Henriques points to several causes: a frenetic 24/7 lifestyle, pressure to succeed in college and careers, competition from peers and a hyperconnection to social media and other technology. He adds that the way many young adults were raised comes into play. "Unfortunately, as a consequence of excessive coddling, kids don't learn how to cope with disappointment, adjust to tough feedback or develop general resiliency skills."
Whatever the reasons, parents can take several steps when an adult child seems distressed. First, though, is not to wait until a crisis to talk to adult children about their sense of purpose. "They are running around like crazy checking off boxes. Take the time to ask them, 'Why are you doing what you are doing? What's your sense of purpose?'"
Often parents are not even aware that adult children are in distress. "I can't tell you how many kids protect their parents from sharing the anxiety and stress that they have. They fear they will lose faith in them or get upset," he says. "We want our kids to be happy, and there's a sense of disappointment if they start to suffer."
If parents can control their emotions, they should sit down with a troubled child and listen without comment. Start the conversation by acknowledging we all feel anxiety at times. "Ask what stresses him and then listen without freaking out or making a judgment about what the kid should or shouldn't do."
Aude Henin, a Massachusetts General Hospital psychologist who specializes in cognitive therapy, urges parents to be alert to subtle changes in behavior. Ask conversationally (not grill!) about how they are feeling, and their activities, social life, and eating and sleeping habits. "If something seems different, it's always worth asking about." Alternatively, Henriques offers a quick self-assessment of well-being that parents can urge an adult child to take.
Henin also suggests that parents don't try to solve problems. "Don't go full mommy mode. Be supportive and ask, 'What's the most helpful thing I can do for you?' You're leaving the emerging adult in the driver's seat."
Talking it out may be sufficient. At other times, professional help is warranted. Colleges have increased counseling services. Also, several groups, including the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies, provide links to resources for older millennials.
Finally, Henin urges parents to keep in contact with adult children. "Although interactions change, there's a lot of data to support that ongoing close supportive relationships with parents make a really big difference in mental health."
Mary W. Quigley, a journalist and author, has written two books about motherhood and work. An NYU journalism professor, she is the mother of three adult children and blogs at Mothering21.com.