Childhood Anxiety & How Parents Blindly Help To Create It

Parenting does not come with an instruction manual, rules, or do’s and don’ts.

Most of us rely on what our parents did or didn’t do as a guide, as well as advice from friends and family, or we simply wing it and learn as we go. But when it comes to the mental stability of a child, however, it requires a careful and guided hand.

How do you prepare a child to live a full life in an uncertain world -- one that is far more psychologically taxing than the world we grew up in?

As parents, we try to protect our children from the bumps and the bruises of the world, using helmets, soft cushions and other “parachutes” to offer soft landings in case they fall.

But what are we really teaching our kids about the process of handling obstacles, which are inevitable in life?

In today’s society, more than ever, there are increasing numbers of kids who are growing up mentally unbalanced.

(via The Atlantic): After remaining more or less flat in the 1970s and ’80s, rates of adolescent depression declined slightly from the early ’90s through the mid-aughts. Shortly thereafter, though, they started climbing, and they haven’t stopped. Many studies, drawing on multiple data sources, confirm this; one of the more recent analyses, by Pew, shows that from 2007 to 2017, the percentage of 12-to-17-year-olds who had experienced a major depressive episode in the previous year shot up from 8 percent to 13 percent—meaning that, in the span of a decade, the number of severely depressed teenagers went from 2 million to 3.2 million. Among girls, the rate was even higher; in 2017, one in five reported experiencing major depression.

From 2007 to 2017, suicides among 10-to-24-year-olds rose 56 percent, overtaking homicide as the second leading cause of death in this age group (after accidents). The increase among preadolescents and younger teens is particularly startling. Suicides by children ages 5 to 11 have almost doubled in recent years. Children’s emergency-room visits for suicide attempts or suicidal ideation rose from 580,000 in 2007 to 1.1 million in 2015; 43 percent of those visits were by children younger than 11.

With more emotional distress finding its way into younger age groups, studies are leaning more towards the parents and in how they behave, act and/or react to the stressors of life and in dealing with anxiety.

From what we do know about how emotional disorders start, how we might head more of them off at the pass starts with “The When: childhood - very often early childhood” and “The How: treatment of anxiety, which was repeatedly described as a gateway to other mental borders.”

Kate Julian of The Atlantic describes anxiety in 2020 as “ubiquitous, inescapable, an ambient condition,” which is on the rise in all age groups. So much so, in fact, a 2018 study showed that anxiety-disorder diagnosed among young people had increased to 17 percent, and the percentage of outpatient doctor visits in America involving a prescription for an anti-anxiety medication -- such as Xanax or Valium -- has doubled.

The good news is that there are new forms of treatment for child anxiety disorders. So though it is uncomfortable at times, kids can learn to tolerate and manage these conditions.

As parents, though we try not to, we are often doing the opposite: far too often, we try to insulate our children and keep them safe in their own bubbles, away from distress and discomfort entirely.

Lynn Lyons, a therapist and co-author of Anxious Kids, Anxious Parents mentions that “the childhood mental-health crisis risks becoming self-perpetuating: The worse that the numbers get about our kids’ mental health—the more anxiety, depression, and suicide increase—the more fearful parents become. The more fearful parents become, the more they continue to do the things that are inadvertently contributing to these problems.”

This, in turn, creates a revolving door for both the parents and the child. It becomes a cycle in which “adult stress leads to child stress, which leads to more adult stress, which leads to an epidemic of anxiety at all ages.”

Julian mentions 5 types of parent-child cycling that keep us in a turnstile of emotional stressors:

I. The Seeds of Anxiety:

Epidemiologists have conducted national studies of children with psychiatric disorders, following them into adulthood. The study shows that anxiety disorders are the most common psychiatric condition in children. They affect nearly a third of adolescents ages 13-18, with a median onset age of around 11 and phobias starting at the age of 7. In many instances, anxiety goes away on its own. If it doesn’t, it tends to carry over into adulthood as mood swings and substance-abuse disorders.

II. The Anxious Parent:

Hovering above our children based on media coverage of kidnapping, for example, is said to be rearing children in a reaction to their surrounding conditions. Being a helicopter parent, as evidence shows, is counterproductive in teaching our children how to manage the stressors that tend to lead to anxiety.

In their book, The Self-Driven Child, William Stixrud, a clinical neuropsychologist, and Ned Johnson argue that today’s parents deprive children of meaningful control over their own lives, putting them at heightened risk of anxiety and depression. “Children don’t need perfect parents, but they do benefit greatly from parents who can serve as a non-anxious presence,” they write.

Stixrud mentions that since writing the book, he concluded that parents’ overprotection of kids includes “an under-recognized element of self-protection.”

“When we shelter kids from difficulty or challenge,” he says,” we are not merely shielding them from distress; we are warding off the distress that their distress causes us. Moreover, when school and family systems both have a baseline level of stress—when adults are always on high alert—kids don’t get a chance to rebound, and so they resist taking on the sorts of natural and healthy risks that will help them grow.”

“Et voilà,” he said, “a generation of anxious kids, looking fearfully at the world around them, who become anxious adults.”

III. Short-Term Gain, Long Term Pain:

Overparenting a child to protect them from any discomfort is going to keep parents pressured and trapped in the same cycle.

“One of the reasons parents accommodate is a child in distress, but another big reason is I want to get my child to school,” Eli Lebowitz, a psychology professor said. That is a powerful driver too. “I have to get to work after I drop you at school.”

Ruthie Arbit, a therapist who specializes in maternal and pediatric mental health, observes that for mothers, especially, time pressure can be compounded by guilt. “When there’s all the guilt that, as a working parent, I missed X, Y, Z,” she told me, “it’s a lot harder to follow through with an unpleasant behavioral intervention.”

IV. Failure to Launch:

“When girls are anxious, adults are more likely to be protective and allow them to avoid scary situations. Boys are told to suck it up … It is as if boys are engaged in continual exposure therapy,” Andrea Petersen writes. She details research showing how parents have, through the decades, encouraged bravery and independence in boys while discouraging those traits in girls.

The difference in upbringing may have a profound effect on why “women are about twice as likely as men to develop one [an anxiety disorder], and women’s illnesses generally last longer, have more severe symptoms, and are more disabling.”

V. Draw the Earthquake:

Sleep, exercise, and friendship also play an important role in the psychological benefits of children. Equally important, it is essential to reduce poverty, instability and deep trauma. To create conditions for children's mental health, we need to “first create the conditions for adult sanity,” and that comes in the form of support from families. The more our children are unhappy and worry, parents tend to compensate with worry also, leading again to worry on top of worry.

“The more overwhelming the world gets, the more adults try to blindfold children.”

The hope is to get early treatments around the time they turn 7, such as one that you can find at Yale University's Child Study Center, called SPACE (Supportive Parenting for Anxious Childhood Emotions). Created by Lebowitz, this program “treats kids without directly treating kids. Lebowitz’s approach is to not blame parents for their kids’ pathologies, aiming to provide “not a temporary solution, but a foundation for a lifetime of successful coping.”

Cognitive-behavioral therapy, the most empirically supported therapy for anxiety, is highly encouraged in many cases. In the case of anxiety, CBT typically involves a combination of what’s known as “cognitive restructuring”—learning to spot maladaptive beliefs and challenge them—and exposure to the very things that cause you anxiety.

“The goal of exposure is to desensitize you to these things and also to give you practice riding out your anxious feelings, rather than avoiding them.”

If we want to prepare our kids for difficult times, we should let them fail at things now, allow them to encounter obstacles, and let them talk candidly about worrisome topics. To be very clear, this is not a cure-all for mental illness, states Julian. What we need to recognize, though, is that our current approach to childhood doesn’t reduce basic human vulnerabilities. It exacerbates them.