Thoughts on Control | A Blog about Anxiety & Depression in Teens

In a recent article in Psychology Today, Peter Gray, research professor at Boston College, reveals the correlation between anxiety and depression in teens and a lack of control over their fate. He references Twenge’s (2004) locus of control model in determining people’s level of happiness and competency. Gray states:

Twenge’s own theory is that the generational increases in anxiety and depression are related to a shift from “intrinsic” to “extrinsic” goals. Intrinsic goals are those that have to do with one’s own development as a person–such as becoming competent in endeavors of one’s choosing and developing a meaningful philosophy of life. Extrinsic goals, on the other hand, are those that have to do with material rewards and other people’s judgments.

It’s no secret that, increasingly, extrinsic goals have positioned themselves at the forefront of personal success. Every year, we’re surrounded by lists touting – no hyping – the biggest earners and best products. Lists such as “Forbes Top 100” and “Best New Gadgets of 2015” serve only to provide a snapshot of who or what is “the best.” Lists upon lists about what to buy, where to go, etc. create fervor and insatiable thirst to attain or experience all “the best” we can. “17 Things You MUST Do Before Turning 25” anyone? It’s exhausting, yet all-consuming. And, it promotes a sense of significance in rising to the top, excelling professionally, and experiencing “the best.” But, the glaring omission here is… identity. Who are we if we aren’t a brand (or buying it)?

I love what Gray said about ‘meaningful philosophy.’ Yes, we’re probably capable of knowing who we are at the core, while also operating within a ‘purchase power’ culture, but what about the most vulnerable people in our culture – kids and adolescents? If they feel as though they’re not “the best” at a sport or skill, or need to advance to something noteworthy in order to gain attention or love, it sure makes sense that anxiety and depression enter the fold, because what they might be good at, is out of their hands. It’s not really enough to have a personal philosophy or feel like one is truly in the driver’s seat (internal locus of control) of his or her life. Emotional intelligence and cultural competency are much-needed (and sorely absent) attributes among societies these days, but they don’t seem to be all that rewarded. As Gray (2013) states, “We have much less personal control over achievement of extrinsic goals than intrinsic goals. I can, through personal effort, quite definitely improve my competence, but that doesn’t guarantee that I’ll get rich.” I think we need to start caring more about a promulgation of success based on individual differences, varying competencies, and whether or not a person is simply living a happy life than whether or not someone is “the best.” Our kids are watching, and the rise in their depression and anxiety is only climbing, steadily. Let’s give them back some control.

(Gray also writes about the deterioration of play/recess in our schools. More to come on that next month….)


Written by Ann Kellogg, MS, LPC



Gray, Peter. (2015). The decline of play and rise in children’s mental health disorders. Retrieved from

Twenge, J. et al. (2004). It’s beyond my control: A cross-temporal meta-analysis of increasing externality in locus of control, 1960-2002. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 8, 308-319.