Dear Gen Z:
First of all, I need to emphatically say: I love you all! You sassy, creative, caring, sensitive, smart, and strong kids, it has been the best part of my life watching and supporting you grow. You are a generation that has had a very different and unique experience in your young lives from anyone before you. You have had a lot of resources and opportunities never before seen, as well as a lot of hardships. Technology has both expanded your worlds and made them infinitely more complicated. You are a very informed generation, and often have had to face facts and experiences that many of you were not emotionally ready to handle yet. Facts and experiences that are hard at any age to handle.
You have been growing up in a world of constant rapid change. Here in the US, you grew up in a country with lockdown drills and school shooters as a norm. You have dealt with in person and cyber bullying, never getting a break from critique, comparison, or interaction. You have more open dialogue around sexuality, gender, abilities, and race/ethnicity. This has made you open minded and also at times confused. Class gaps are ever expanding and some of you hold a great deal of wealth and advantages, while others have very little. Either way, you have had little control over that and for many of you the disparity feels unfair. You would be right about that.
You are a generation that has been told your feelings are important without really having any say in how your lives have been managed. You have been pressured by many adults to achieve in very specific and narrow ways, to perform in uniform standardized rubrics. You have been expected to excel in after school activities and build good community service resumes early. Some of you have stressed over college admittance since grade school. You look forward to a road full of either very competitive and expensive higher education or large student loans with uncertainty of jobs after graduation.
You have all struggled with ever increasing anxiety and depression rates from these toxicities in our culture. All of you have at least one friend who has been diagnosed with something and struggles. Most of you have been exposed to suicidality, cutting, and drugs very young. I know, I’ve watched the numbers increase year by year. You either struggle with being too controlled in schedule and task and hate it, or you struggle without having someone help you with control and need it to function. You have not been allowed you to explore, play, get bored, and make mistakes to learn from and thrive in ways young humans have for thousands of years.
You are a generation burdened with challenges untold. Your parents and grandparents built a world based on consistent unrealistic expectations of exponential growth, resources, and potential without repercussions. They complain that you are all entitled, and they have given you everything so you shouldn’t complain. They don’t see that everything came at a huge cost. So, you have grown up knowing you are inheriting a hot mess with climate change. The cost was the certainty of the basics of a stable ecological future and the fallouts from it. You question whether to go to college, have children, or plan for the path you are told to want when you know big storms are coming. You tend to trust science and data, and you should. You also trust your eyes and ears and see the ice caps melting. It scares and overwhelms you. It does me too. Many of you hear messages like, “Your generation is going to have to fix all of this, you will change it, you are the hope.” Sadly, it’s true. Sadly, it’s also very unfair.
Most of you were raised by us Gen X folks. We are a small generation. We are all neurotic, and most of us know it. We were the first latch key kids, who had little guidance and attention. Many of us saw the mess ahead and didn’t have the numbers to outvote boomers with progressive change. Some of us did the best we could, and honestly, pushed for change to support you all in growing up more enlightened, with more opportunities. I’ve spent my career trying to create change supporting one family, one parent and one kid at a time. This is part of my great affection for you all, I’ve watched you all grow in your brilliant resiliency. I’ve been under tables with you in schools in lock down drills. I’ve listened to the endless stories of the confusion of online life. I know the pressure of your call out and cancel culture. I have had to try to keep up with the frankly constantly crazy shit you have had to deal with.
Then there are your parents, my peers. Some of Gen X went way overboard and hovered over you and snowplowed the path ahead for you, and in that process crippled you in your agency and empowerment. Some parents went the other way and were hard on you, they criticized and pushed and tried to micromanage you to make all the choices they didn’t. Some have lived their childhoods through you, always wanting to be your friend and not your parent. Many never paused to ask how you wanted to grow up. I believe all of those parents have done the best they could with what they had. I have witnessed their love for you and struggle to do right by you. Remember: many of them grew up with little to no parental guidance and others had authoritarian parents that still spanked. We don’t know what we are doing. So, on behalf of all of us middle-aged folks, I apologize for our many failings. Adulting does not come with a handbook, the truth is, everyone is winging it.
And now you face a global pandemic. A crisis that took away your outlets for school, friends, sports, novelty, camps, and the normalcy of life. You went from 100 miles an hour every day to a full stop. On top of that, you are witnessing history with protests in your streets and police murders and brutality on the news. It’s triggering and traumatic and confusing and messy and overwhelming. I see you struggling with it, trying to figure out your role at such a young age. The good news: I see so many of you deeply caring about it.
Many of you are asking about all of this, “What do I do? What can I do?” I see many of you with clarity taking to the streets or joining groups for advocacy work. I see some of you sewing masks and delivering groceries to elderly. I see those of you volunteering free and cheap childcare to stressed parents trying to school and work from home. I see so many acts of random kindness with you kids. You inspire the hell out of me. I also see some of you sleeping until 4pm after playing video games until 4am day in and day out with no motivation and total lethargy and apathy. I see some of you unable to eat or focus due to all of the uncertainty, you feel both overwhelmed and numb. I see some of you fighting daily with loneliness and angst. You kids inspire the hell out of me too.
That statement is going to surprise some of you. A generation raised on performance gets confused when I say I am inspired by authenticity, especially if that means you can’t get out of bed. All of those experiences of coping are valid. Some have more capacity than others, that isn’t a reflection on character. There is always a need and meaning behind behavior. This is a global trauma. People in trauma either hyper or hypo arouse. Hyperarousal, when regulated, can look like action. When it’s not regulated, it can look like spinning out into emotional outbursts or obsessive focus, often on things that are addictive like games. Hypoarousal can look like resting and self-care when regulated. When it’s not, it looks like an inability to move, function or care. It looks like lots of sleep, then more sleep, then feeling overwhelmed to even get up and shower.
All of these responses are normal in a crisis. It is your body trying to cope with an immense amount of stress and protect you. Sometimes we don’t even cognitively know we are stressed. We think, “Oh, the pandemic and protests don’t bother me at all.” Your body and behavior might be saying something very different. Listen to your body, it never lies. If you have any kind of pre-existing mental or physical health issues they will be heightened. If you haven’t had any big mood swings or stress before, you probably have experienced some now. 2020 is a big deal and we are just at the half-way mark.
Because I love you and it’s my job, I am going to outline a few things for you to cope. You might even know a few, but it’s always a good reminder. Hopefully, it is helpful. First of all: name what’s happening. Name that this is HARD. No matter who you are or what your response, this is HARD. You just have to take it a day at a time and do the best you can. All of you have to trust in your resilience. What is resilience? It is your ability to connect with others and have community, it is your personal strengths, talents, and wisdom. It is your mental and physical health and how you cope with stress. It is your ability to take lemons and make lemonade. It is your self-compassion and ability to be okay when you feel bad or make mistakes. Resilience is how you communicate; it is your ability to ask for help and resource. No matter what generation: we all need help right now.
Soothe yourself, take care of your body first. Hydrate, sleep, eat, move. Do the basics always. Many of my clients over the years have reminisced about how this basic strategy of naming feelings and taking care of the body help tremendously. Ground yourself. Come into this moment, right now, find a way to focus your mind and body on something concrete. Maybe it’s music and you are just listening to that only. Maybe it’s a walk and you just concentrate on the trees and birds. Maybe it’s a snack and you focus hard on the flavor, or art and you put your mind to the one task of coloring or painting. Give yourself a sense of control and relaxation through mindful focus.
Take time to educate yourself. Not the education others say you should learn. Learn something you like. Do you have something you’ve always been interested in and haven’t had time to do it? Research it. Go down the deep YouTube rabbit hole of your passion. Maybe you’ve always wanted to travel to China. You can’t right now. But you can look up a bunch of stuff and make a travel itinerary. You can look up what a travel itinerary is. Are you afraid of climate change? Now is the time to look into organizations, jobs, education opportunities, look into the many different paths to take. That way when we are back to going out again: you are ready. Definitely look into your privilege. There are so many resources out there. Follow black folks on IG and TikTok, read books, watch movies. Learn.
You do not have to DO ANYTHING necessarily right now; you are still young. If you can march, great, if you can sign change.org petitions or donate, great. The biggest thing you will do either now or soon is vote. Good voters are informed and critical thinkers. Question it all, question where it comes from, who it’s oriented to, question the numbers even. Get curious. And here is the biggest thing you all can do, and we need you to do. DREAM. Resilience, my dearest Gen Z, is your ability to dream. For thousands of years it is the youth who dream up the new world. Dream big. Dream bold. Get creative. Think outside of the box.
If you magically had all the answers of how, what picture of the planet would you paint? How would people be treated? What would life look like? What needs to change? What do you like as it is? Then, as you dream, do that research, find those people, create that community. Build that life. Build your personal life and build your world. Let go of the templates given to you and reimagine them. Know that everything starts with a dream and is created one step at a time. This is the long game.
That’s the cool thing about being an adult: you can actually live life the way you want. Often that means rejecting the life that is expected of you by the standing norms and culture. Happier lives are built on good relationships, fun and new experiences, and strong values on who you want to be in the world, not acquisitions, degrees, and stuff. Science says that pretty clearly. So, my many young friends, you have the numbers to do what you want in the next 10-20 years as you come of age. Some of us old folks have your back, we are listening, and we will fight with you. Personally, I can’t wait to see what you all do. I believe in you all, we are in this together.
If you have ideas and want to post here: I’d love to hear them! Be well!