Why Alex from ‘Modern Family’ is important to teens struggling with anxiety

Most people who know me, know that I love Modern Family. My father and I binge-watched our way through the first five seasons in a matter of weeks and are currently (and very impatiently) waiting for the sixth. So many things about the show make it good — the fast-paced dialogue, the different character arcs, the sheer hilarity of it all — but, for me, one of the best things about the show is how genuinely it explores emotional issues.

Now, while Modern Family is undeniably a comedy, it’s not afraid to tackle real, emotional moments, and when those moments come, they’re handled beautifully. Story moments such as the kids dealing with the death of Phil’s mother or when Mitchell has to process the fact his father still finds it difficult to accept his son marrying another man are ones that have actually made me cry, but one of my favorite emotional Modern Family moments is when Alex sees a therapist.

In case you’re not familiar with Modern Family, here’s a little background: Alex Dunphy is an overachieving, highly-intelligent teenager who is a little too obsessed with getting good grades and is originally presented as the typical precocious, book-loving kid, in contrast to her fashion-obsessed, uber-popular sister Haley. However, as the series has progressed, so has the characterization of Alex; more of her anxieties and insecurities are explored, as well as the ramifications of her being so much more advanced than her classmates and the social isolation she experiences as a result. Even though Alex’s struggles are addressed several times in the series, one of the key moments where this is highlighted (and one that has a lot of personal resonance for me) is the season 5 episode “Under Pressure.”

The basic plot of the episode is that Alex, who has been studying nonstop for the SATs, has worked herself into a frenzy of constant revision and intense pressure, which all comes to a head at her sixteenth birthday party, where she has a complete meltdown over what a waste of time the celebration is, and ends up wrecking her own birthday cake. (The destruction of the cake is, in itself, a tragedy.) This gives her a reality check that her strong work ethic might be taking over her life, which leads to her decision to see a therapist.

I’m sure the episode was emotional for most viewers, but the second Alex began destroying the cake, I had one of those deja-vu moments. I stared at the screen and actually said, out loud, “Oh my God. That’s me.” Not that I’ve ever destroyed a birthday cake — anyone who knows me will tell you that I am far too fond of cake to ever destroy it — but I sadly am no stranger to anxiety and pressure-induced freakouts, as my long-suffering family will testify. I’ve written about my struggles with anxiety and school before, and this episode was one that really hit home. I was pleasantly surprised that for once, the stereotype of the overachieving kid was actually going to be deconstructed.

I was that kid. I was the kid who burst into tears when I only got nine out of ten on a spelling test. I was the kid who started revising four months in advance. I didn’t get any of this pressure from my parents — it all came from me. As I got older, the work I focused on shifted from exams to writing. That was even more upsetting, to a large extent. Before that, writing had been something I loved, something that helped me relax, but I was turning it into work, into something I had to do. But I couldn’t stop putting the pressure on myself.

To be brutally honest, I originally didn’t have high hopes for Alex’s therapy visit. I’d seen too many shows where an issue is reduced to a one-episode deal — the kid recounts one story from their childhood, has one big emotional conversation and then the whole thing’s never even mentioned again. (No offense, Full House, but I’m looking at you and DJ’s brush with an eating disorder.) As someone who’s been in therapy, and has far too much experience with the different types and just how long counseling can take, I wasn’t looking forward to seeing yet another incorrect representation, especially on a show I loved so much.

Luckily, I didn’t have to. Alex’s therapy session is genuinely one of my favorite scenes I’ve ever watched in Modern Family — heck, in any TV show. It’s also one of the few television scenes I’ve watched that I could completely identify with. When Alex tries to diagnose herself in therapy, I remembered the time I sat in my psychiatrist’s office and said to my mother, “Yes, but Mum, I also exhibited echolalia as a child,” which caused my doctor to raise his eyebrows and respond, “Well, that’s the first time I’ve heard that term used by a teenager.”

The more the scene played out, the closer to home it hit. Alex’s therapist reminded me of the way my own psychiatrist used to conduct sessions — the way he carefully lets her reach her own conclusions, gently pushing at the issue when it’s necessary. But more than anything else, some of the things Alex said struck a chord. At one point, she describes a moment as a child when she was determined to win a spelling bee, despite the fact her parents didn’t know she was competing. The competition wasn’t important and there wasn’t even a prize. “I just….had to win,” she says, her voice trailing off, and I was immediately reminded of myself age eight, refusing to talk to a classmate for a week because he’d beaten me on a test.

But one of the key moments — for Alex and me — was when her therapist questions her gently on where this pressure comes from. Alex is quick to exonerate her parents and siblings from any blame, pointing out that it comes from herself, not anywhere else. It’s then that she starts to realize herself just how much all the pressure she’s putting on herself is wearing her down, how isolated it makes her feel, even from her own family. “I feel….kind of alone” she says. “They don’t….get me.”

“I said, I don’t know,” she snaps when her therapist asks how that makes her feel, and I could see myself then, the way I used to hide away from any questions about how locking myself away in my bedroom, working on my writing even on Christmas Day, made me feel while I missed time with my family. After a bit, Alex points out that while there are benefits to being the way she is — “Don’t get me wrong, I like the way I’m wired…it’s what makes me who I am” — she concedes that being the person she is can be difficult. “I guess there’s your answer…” she says, in what is honestly one of the saddest lines I’ve ever heard. “It’s hard…being me.”

This was one of the first times I’d seen the smart-kid trope deconstructed. Originally, Alex’s intelligence was one of the defining aspects of her character, and to a large extent, it still is. We, the viewers, knew Alex as the Smart One, the same way we probably knew Haley as the Popular One. And Alex, too, saw herself that way; it’s how she came to define herself over the years. All too often, I’ve seen the smart kids on TV almost used as a comedy device. It’s depicted as hilarious to show them freaking out over a test or screaming at someone about grammar. It’s rare that, like this Modern Family episode, we see the real effects too much pressure can have on kids. I know. I’ve been that kid. I’ve been that kid who the other kids laugh at for not being able to relax over a test. I’ve been that kid who can’t stop working because she thinks it means being a failure. It’s hard. It’s hard to be that kid.

Alex’s story doesn’t end with a neat little bow. She’s not fixed after that episode, relaxed and able to go on with her life no longer putting insane amounts of pressure on herself. She’s still anxious, still uptight, still definitely under a lot of stress. But she’s made a start, even though it’s clear that she has a long road ahead of her. And that was another thing that I loved — that Modern Family made it clear that therapy doesn’t just fix you in an instant. It’s a long time, sometimes. But once you make the start, it’s easier.

(Image via ABC.)

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