"She had a strange feeling in the pit of her stomach, like when you're swimming and you want to put your feet down on something solid, but the water's deeper than you think and there's nothing there." — Julia Gregson, East of the Sun
None of my daughters is a scaredy-cat, least of all my 15-year-old. Anything but.
As a toddler, she went down slides headfirst. In nursery school, she pulled a fire alarm just to hear it ring. ("Sorry, Daddy. I couldn’t get it out of my head.") At 7, she marched to the center of a restaurant without invitation or warning and played "Three Blind Mice" on a recorder … through her nose.
You get the idea (though the maître d' and other diners did not).
So it was a great surprise one night this month when my little one walked haltingly into my bedroom as I was drifting off to sleep to say that there was, after all, something she might possibly want for Christmas — a pendant necklace with a panic button. Two presses texts one’s location to friends and family members; three calls the cops. The device conveniently comes as a bracelet as well.
Maybe it was the shooting threat that closed her school earlier in the week that had her on edge. Perhaps it was all those serial killer shows on Netflix, or news of the latest COVID-19 variant, or the constant talk at school of looming environmental catastrophes, or the emotional roller coaster that is social media, or the sudden ubiquity of legalized marijuana among her peers. Possibly, and I’m ashamed to consider this, it’s her father’s incessant angst over politics that spills unthinkingly into our household.
Maybe it’s all the above.
Whatever it is, my daughter is not alone in her fears. It’s well-documented that adolescents across the country are reporting profound feelings of anxiety, disconnectedness and despair. Youth suicide rates tragically bear that out.
College students are being hit particularly hard. Sixty-four percent of dropouts are now leaving school because of mental health challenges, according to a recent national study. (I’m working with a terrific foundation called RADical Hope that’s working to address the campus mental health crisis through resilience training.) There is much work to be done.
Many ponder deeper societal causes for this generational struggle — the decline in family church attendance, the breakdown of two-parent households, the gamification of life over actual human interaction. Surely, they are contributors.
But negativity itself feels like the simplest culprit. Negativity, and the suffocating pessimism it produces.
Uncertainty has viscously hijacked our national ethos, and our children must be absorbing it like sponges. Is the American Experiment failing? That’s the front-and-center question everywhere one turns, and it’s got to be doing a number on kids.
There have been crises of national confidence before. But they didn't feel quite so deep or unsettling. We had swagger in the past. Now, it appears misplaced. How do we get it back?
Faith suggests it starts with gratitude. Gratitude for what and who we have. Gratitude for the wonderful blessings to come. Gratitude for a daughter who still wakes her father at night when her feet can't find the ground.
I must remember that in the coming year. One can’t teach what one doesn’t practice. And one shouldn’t need a pendant to feel safe.
Opinions expressed by William F. B. O’Reilly, a consultant to Republicans, are his own.