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From Gen Alpha to boomers, we asked 6 therapists what each generation is talking about in therapy

Kim Schewitz   

From Gen Alpha to boomers, we asked 6 therapists what each generation is talking about in therapy
  • Different generations love to complain about each other, but therapists say we're all struggling.
  • Younger generations grapple with identity, friendship, and forging their own path.

Baby boomers inherited a thriving economy and ruined it for the rest of us. Millennials are anxious avocado-eaters who'll never own property, while Gen Zers are depressed snowflakes who take liberties at work. As for Gen X, hardly anyone even remembers they exist.

It's too soon to tell how Gen Alpha will be judged, but they practically came out of the womb watching TikTok and already use antiaging skincare products, so things aren't looking good.

Or so the stereotypes go.

So in the spirit of finding some common ground amid all the mud-slinging, BI asked six therapists what their clients from different generations commonly talk about in therapy. Topics include feeling inadequate, relationships, and difficulty navigating life transitions.

It turns out Gen Z are not the only ones struggling with their mental health. In 2022, nearly a quarter of US adults visited a psychologist, therapist, or psychiatrist, a Gallup poll found. That's a 10% rise since 2004.

The reasons aren't all bleak: There's less stigma around seeking treatment, particularly among younger people, and a greater emphasis on the importance of good mental health than in previous years, Gallup found. But the stress of the pandemic likely played a part, it said, and women, young adults, and people with lower household incomes were least likely to rate their mental health positively, the poll said.

No matter how old we are, we're all grappling with something, whether personally or collectively. International relations are tense, and it feels like we're constantly on the verge of entering a recession or seeing AI steal our jobs, not to mention the text bombs we're sending each other.

"Every generation is genuinely struggling to make meaning of what their life should look like at this time. What that looks like for different age groups is different," Israa Nasir, a psychotherapist based in New York and the author of the upcoming book "Toxic Positivity," told Business Insider.

But every generation goes through the same life stages necessary to become a fully formed human, she said.

So while headlines and online trends will have you believing that Gen Z is from Venus while boomers are from Mars, we're probably more similar than we are different.

Generation Alpha

Members of Generation Alpha were born around 2010 and later. The oldest turn 14 this year, so they're very much still children.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly one in five children have a mental, emotional, or behavioral disorder, with ADHD and anxiety being the most prevalent, but of those, only 20% receive mental health treatment. The CDC data is based on children aged between 3 and 17.

There's been a spike in children being diagnosed with ADHD since 2003, according to the CDC, and anxiety has also increased over time. Between 2016 and 2019, more than 9% of US children were diagnosed with anxiety.

Georgina Sturmer, a UK-based counselor registered with the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, told BI that this age group was "hit hard by a perfect storm" — the COVID pandemic plunged the world into turmoil and uncertainty and separated them from their peers, she said.

In a more general sense, kids under 13 often stress most about things happening in their immediate environment — "often what is happening that day or that week," Amanda Macdonald, a UK-based BACP-registered therapist, told BI.

Parents typically have a large role in their children's lives at this age, and there is a push and pull between what is allowed, how things are done, and the child's desire for greater independence, she said. Gen Alpha are also forming friendships outside their family and independent of their parents or carers, and that's reflected in what kids worry about.

Thai Alonso, a clinical psychologist based in New Jersey, told BI that the most common concern among kids late in elementary school or middle school is conflict with their parents. Parents' expectations around their child's behavior and how they deal with emotions can cause clashes, she said.

Among preschool-aged Gen Alphas, who are too young for one-to-one therapy, Alonso said she gets a lot of referrals for kids struggling with behavioral difficulties such as emotion regulation, anger, and ADHD.

Gen Z

Gen Zers are typically between 14 and 26 years old. Therapists said that identity, body image, and friendship issues are common concerns for this age group, and they often struggle with anxiety and low moods.

Younger Gen Zers who are in high school or college worry about social hierarchies and dynamics, such as who is "cool" and who is not, which can lead to angst and a sense of not being good enough, Jill Owen, a clinical psychologist in the UK, told BI. Clients often compare themselves to their peers, particularly when it comes to how "popular" or attractive they are. She believes the rise of social media over the past decade has made this worse.

"Younger Gen Z are developing their own sense of identity, with how they dress, speak, and spend their time, essentially what being 'them' means," Owen said. "With this sense of independence comes anxiety over becoming an adult, and an awareness of wider issues such as climate change and global injustices."

Diana Garcia, a therapist in Florida, works mainly with older Gen Zers between 18 and 26. "At this stage of life, they are starting to explore what's important for them, whether they have values similar to or different from those of their family of origin," she said. They're thinking about careers or at the start of that journey and that can create feelings of anxiety, she said.

Millennials

Like Gen Zers, millennials, who are in their late 20s to early 40s, also feel insecure because they compare the "perfect lives" they see on social media with their own, Owen said.

Many are also becoming parents for the first time or considering having children, which can bring up lots of different feelings.

Past generations weren't as aware of the extent to which parenting styles can impact a child's mental health. Social media made this information mainstream, and millennials think more about how their upbringing affected them emotionally and how they can avoid harming their kids, Israa Nasir said.

"I have observed a lot of motivation to look inward and begin to unpack childhood traumas in an effort to protect their own children," Alonso said.

Nasir has seen that as well. "People are actually just straight-up coming into therapy saying, 'I think I had a lot of emotional issues with my parents when I was younger,' or 'I need to deal with my issues with my parents,'" Nasir said.

Many millennials are also hitting traditional milestones like buying properties, getting married, and having kids later. Those who haven't fulfilled these societal expectations or simply chose a different path might come to therapy to discuss those pressures, Sturmer said.

Gen X

Generation Xers are around 44 to 59 years old.

They have higher incomes than millennials, but many still have college debt to pay off or are paying it off on behalf of their kids. They also care for aging parents, have bigger families than millennials, and are expected to "step up" as community leaders, a 2019 Gallup analysis found. "It's a perfect storm of financial, emotional, and time-pressure stress," Gallup said.

Sturmer, who works primarily with women, said all these pressures, along with dealing with the emotional impact of menopause, take its toll mentally.

Many of her Gen X clients are also trying to help their children deal with mental-health challenges.

She said she sees "tired, overwhelmed, stressed parents who are doing their best to support their children to navigate mental-health services, while also coping with everything that's going on in their own lives."

Boomers

Baby boomers are in their 60s and 70s. BI previously reported that boomers hold half of America's wealth, but it's not spread evenly among them. Many members of this generation are considered economically insecure and do not have enough savings for retirement and long-term care.

They're adjusting to a later stage of life, and some are fearful that as they age, they might start to lose their identity or feel a loss of direction.

"Retirement can bring with it a loss of identity, confidence, and sense of purpose. Empty-nest situations can have a similar impact," Owen said.

As people's kids grow up and start families of their own, it can provoke difficult feelings. "If we've always understood our role in terms of our job or our family life, then it makes sense that this might leave us struggling to understand who we are," Sturmer said.

"We often hear people joking about how lucky the boomers are — free university education, rising house prices — leaving us with a stereotypical image of a debt-free couple sailing off into retirement. But this isn't necessarily the reality," she said.


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