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Anxiety in Children: Are We To Blame?

Posted: 02/26/2013 5:26 pm

You cannot flip open a newspaper, a magazine or scan Facebook without noticing the rise in anxiety and depression amongst young teens and adults. Many articles call it an epidemic, documented by a severe spike in suicides, prescriptions and counselling appointments on university campuses.

As a counsellor at a major college, I see it first hand. As a mom of four young kids, it scares me. Why this increase? How can I avoid this despair in my kids' lives? These questions have motivated me to read a variety of opinions and theories on the subject, and I'm seeing that the new literature is calling for a change in how we parent and coach our kids in the early years. We cannot start the inoculation in their teens; the time is now.

A common thread in all of these articles seems to offer that teens and young adults lack an ability to compete, to fail and to persevere. They are not prepared and this leaves them scared and anxious when they look at their future in the face. Many are crumbling from the pressure. The finger gets pointed at parents, albeit sheepishly. Have we done too much for our kids, protected them and prevented them from all harm?

Martin Seligman, author of Learned Optimism and The Optimistic Child, looked at the history of how society, in an attempt to help misguided teens, connected self-esteem and success. The simple thread was made that if kids felt good about themselves, they would make better choices, not do drugs or get pregnant. They would go to college. If we just helped them feel better about themselves, they would be happy, well adjusted and have fulfilling lives. It is easy to support this formula. But Seligman knew there was fault in it.

Armed with good intentions, this thinking has crept into policy and we started to see kids' soccer leagues stop keeping score, fewer contests in school for best poems, speeches, you name it; competition became a 'dirty word' as that would mean someone won, but also that someone lost, and this may produce low self-esteem. There is even a movement to stop using the word 'no' to toddlers as that may lead to them feeling badly about themselves.

While protecting them from harm, we have also started to save them from hard work and from boredom. Why ask them to shovel the snow when we can pay someone to do it, and save hearing them whine. And they have 10 hours of booked activities to attend; they don't have time to help around the house. Homework? Let me help you. We want them to do well and feel good about themselves, but it's hard to see them struggle, and so if we just do it, all will be OK.

Working at a large post secondary school, I am in awe of how this seemingly harmless trend in grade school continues. In our counselling and disabilities office, we have had multiple calls from parents with requests ranging from wanting their kids' classes to be later in the day because it is hard for them to get there on time; to parents asking if they can attend class with their child to take their notes. "Tommy has trouble listening and writing at the same time."

We have all heard the term helicopter parent, but the common term now is snowplow parent. Not only are parents hovering, the stress is getting to them too, and they are beginning to plow the circumstances to make life better for their kids, or so they think.

After more than 20 years of this trend, depression and anxiety have reached epidemic levels. Something is missing. Seligman has used science to dig deeper and identify the fault in the formula. Just how do we build self-esteem? Well, it seems obvious now. And 20-20 is always so brilliant, but just telling your kids they are great every day doesn't actually make them feel great.

Ahh. We as a family unit, as a community and leaders in their schools, must provide opportunities for kids to make wins, to learn small successes. This is what builds self-esteem. However, losing is equally important; it is an opportunity to learn resilience, perseverance, sportsmanship and humility.

Seligman also identifies learning independence as a major source of growth. Kids need the opportunity to learn for themselves, the chance to make their own decisions and to see how the consequences work out. Of course, there are many layers here. The prescription is not to go from 0 to 100, and then throw them to the wolves. But what's happening now is that we do for our kids right up until they go to college, and then in essence, we say "OK, you are an adult now, go to it."

Doing this, I would argue, is throwing them to the wolves, and many are not making it. Their lack of survival skills leaves them scared and anxious, and wanting to avoid the challenges ahead.

Instead, let's let them walk to school on their own (age appropriate), pack their own hockey bags, do their own homework, and cook an egg. When kids are young, they are more open to us coaching them on stranger danger, teaching them how to use the oven, making a game of getting ready for school and activities. As they get older, they adopt an attitude of 'I know it already', and it's harder to begin telling them to look both ways when they cross the road.

It's easier to teach them to make good choices when they are young. We are still the centre of their world when they are children. Let's use it; not abuse it and coddle them. At this time they trust our opinion; we actually have a place of power. This is the time to be letting the leash have some slack, all the while whispering encouragements and tweaks along the way. It is here where they can learn some knocks as the stakes are low.

We need to look down the road and give some hard thought to this sad upturn in mental health, sadness and fear. How can we help inoculate our kids? What can we do now? I say it starts with a shift in parenting away from the current model to somewhere balanced, safe and fun. Let's land the helicopters. For the sake of our children.

By Cory Bentley


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