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How to Navigate the Existential Anxiety in Children

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Children ask the strangest questions, don’t they? Recently, in a karaoke bar on a Saturday night in Sweden, a young mother wanted suggestions on how to deal with her seven-year-old daughter who asks her big questions like “Mummy, are you going to die?” Before I emigrated from South Africa in 2022, parents spoke to me about children who had begun asking existential questions or demonstrating hopelessness at a young age. I’m a counsellor, and I regularly work with the national mental health crisis call centre in South Africa. I get these questions from all races across all classes.

As a counsellor, I’m inclined to advise them to seek professional assistance in the correct setting. But this young mother in Sweden tells me that state-sponsored therapy for her daughter has a two-year waiting list. She implores me to provide any suggestions. Registered counsellors are bound by ethics, and providing counselling in a karaoke bar is definitely not good practice. Instead, I gave her an overview of processes we use during counselling in the context of contemporary crises.

In the new age of online consumer culture, we imply that the world is safe, well-fed, and comfortable for most people. For many others, the opposite is true. Their suffering infuses the collective consciousness with anxiety, guilt, and dread. It should come as no surprise that our children are the ones to express this anxiety. Adults are often bonded to or blinded by their status ideals, shrouded by ambition, animated by consumption and deaf to disturbances in the collective. A known “mode” in the minds of counselling clients is emotional avoidance; finding creative ways to avoid emotions. Adults have more practice at this, but it generates guilt. Existentialism confronts guilt from the unlived life, anxiety, and personal responsibility by addressing the spectrum of life, death, suffering, and threat while holding hope, growth, and new life up to the light. But how does one adopt a process that leads to growth?

Various forms of therapeutic intervention utilise a pragmatic approach to existence. Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), advanced by Dr Steven Hayes, infuses some principles from existentialism while guiding the client to identify and develop their unique values. An ACT therapist will defuse thoughts into observable, inert ideas and support clients in commitment to change via their personal values. Prosocial, moral values act as a reliable compass for future choices that can result in positive outcomes over time. Better outcomes create resilience. Much of psychology and philosophy assumes that entropy and chaos result from a lack of purpose, we could say a life lived without developing one’s values. Living without an awareness of your core values leaves one vulnerable to opportunistic forces in society.

Complementing this method, an existentialist approach urges us to imagine that the loss of purpose leads to a collapse of meaning, and suffering will follow.

These forces are evident in many arenas today. We can see nations that have lost their moral mooring, they don’t know their values anymore, and some never did. Lockdowns stripped us all of autonomy and dignity. In South Africa, we have a collapsing state. It is an example of a conflagration of nihilistic values rooted in Marxist ideology. The “Rainbow Nation” of Nelson Mandela bleeds, starves, and whimpers while the political elite gorge on the pot of gold that was meant to be shared by all. Meanwhile, the innocent people of Ukraine must ward off bands of psychopaths roaming their country as the world bickers about whose war that really is. The internet facilitates microcosms of nihilism to bloom behind closed doors in damp basements. Although most parents will shield their children, and themselves, from this information, most are only partially successful.

If we accept that there is little we can do about the systemic-level threats perceived by the youth, what can we do to avoid emotionally hobbling the next generation?

The adult can model prosocial values, pursue purpose, and create meaning. This is the antidote to existential guilt and anxiety. We could equip our youth, in age-appropriate ways, to be more resilient. This will not be achieved by lying about threats, living in denial, or pretending “that will never happen here”, or by medicalising the problem. In fact, it appears this strategy has made many things much worse and created new forms of suffering previously unimagined, as seen in the gender transition crisis.

In a contemporary world fortunate to have unprecedented levels of comfort compared to previous generations, the WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) citizen does not face true existential threat as regularly as his ancestors did. This means the hardwiring evolved to keep us alive is not being utilised appropriately anymore. As Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff so eloquently laid out in their book The Coddling of the American Mind, the youth today inherit a world of comfort but devoid of purpose, decorum, and meaning. Many well-intentioned practices like “trigger warnings” have fed the neuroses of many, elevated the most sensitive without genuine merit, and isolated people from their social networks, even from family members.

Of course, we cannot line up everyone for mandatory therapy and a crash course in philosophy. Instead, adults can address their own behaviour. Parents of all social classes can take time out of their schedule to begin a process of assessing their values and grappling with their own existential anxiety. The age of consumption is fuelled by a misguided attempt to assuage this existential anxiety. We spend and consume in a futile effort to delay our inevitable death. This misguided behaviour is perceived by our youth. They see adults feverishly pursuing fantasies while others are dying. A life lived pursuing the standards of the external world creates a vacuum in the spirit, the spirit being the essence of who, rather than what we are. Nature abhors a vacuum. In their formative years, some children remain shielded from values-based character growth, their role models are consumers being consumed.

Many philosophers and great psychologists have theorised these same concepts to explain adult human behaviour. Jung spoke of the archetypes and the collective unconscious. Others suggest that humans can be programmed. Aristotle said: “Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man”. Aristotle was noting that our character is formed within the first seven years of life, a view shared by modern psychologists like Piaget, Kohlberg, and Vygotsky. Conversely, psychologist John B. Watson said he could take any child and “train him to become any type of specialist”, clearly favouring the nurture part of ‘nature or nurture’. In contrast, the YouTube-educated basement philosopher today might say “Bring me the child and I’ll medicalise them for life, enslave them to porn, make them dependent on the state, hook them on cheap calories, remove all threats real or imagined, and fill them with dread for the future”.

It’s as if 3,000 years of human development have been wiped from our collective consciousness.

What do children today think of our responses to existential threats? What message are we sending our youth? Are we modelling purpose and meaning to them in their formative years? Do we show them that life is filled with miracles, that events are not predefined, that free choice exists, that hope is eternal, and change is inevitable? Do we live, love, and act as if life is precious? Do you?

Vincent Deboni is a registered professional counsellor who is based in Sweden. 


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