Anxiety and stress have become rampant in youth today. More than half of today’s adolescents say they struggle with feeling stressed on a daily basis. The average teenager today reports the same level of anxieties that the average psychiatric patient of the 1950’s did.
Younger children, too, have become increasingly fearful about bedtime, leaving their parents, being teased, being harmed, failing school, fitting in, or being made fun of.
What is going on, and what can we do about it?
What’s Normal, What’s Not
Anxiety is a normal part of childhood. It’s built into our nervous system to protect us from harm. It’s healthy to be wary of dangerous situations – to raise the “fight or flight” alarms when faced with threats to our physical safety or sense of security.
But that primitive self-protection alarm system has run amok in modern times. As we race to keep up with 24/7 demands for immediate results and instant gratification, our children are constantly under siege with demands to improve themselves – be better, smarter, faster. Their emotional brains are working overtime – literally becoming hyper-sensitive and hyper-reactive to perceived threats, real or imagined.
For some, the worries grow disproportionately large. Your child may be trying to look good on the outside, but frequently feel like they’re not good enough on the inside. They may grow increasingly afraid to face common everyday challenges (academic, social, familial, etc.). As their anticipatory fears grow, they may start to avoid places or activities.
Anxiety disorders affect one in eight children. These are pervasive patterns of anxiety and worry that can’t be easily reassured or relieved. Anxiety disorders involve distorted thinking – overestimating both the probability of something bad happening and the intensity or degree of negative impact. These worries are irrational, but take hold of your mind and body in the moment so that you believe they’re true. Racing thoughts and racing heartbeats make it hard to think straight and remain calm.
Research shows that untreated, children with anxiety disorders are at higher risk to perform poorly in school, miss out on important social experiences, engage in substance abuse, and become clinically depressed.
Making It Worse
Unfortunately, it is all too common for well-meaning adults to inadvertently increase a child’s anxious feelings, avoidant behaviors, and sense of inadequacy. To avoid these easy-to-fall-into traps, DO NOT:
- Excessively reassure your child, telling them “everything will be alright.” This negates what the child is feeling, can make them feel that you don’t understand, and may offer an unrealistic or false promise.
- Encourage avoidance – i.e. removing the child from the feared situation. This provides temporary relief (short-term gain), but ultimately “feeds the fear monster,” increasing the likelihood of more avoidance in the future (long-term pain).
- Be too directive – telling the child exactly what to do. This dis-empowers the child and can make them feel more dependent, helpless, and inadequate.
- Become impatient with your child – getting angry at them for not trying hard enough. This almost certainly will increase their nervousness and feelings that they can’t ever “get it right.”
- Be overly empathetic – sharing too much detail about how you understand because of your own fears and anxieties. This may worry the child more, and make them worry about making you worry more!
Making It Better
Instead, seek to strike a calm, compassionate, and confident tone with your children. To help your child worry less and live more, DO:
- Acknowledge and validate that they have some anxious nerves or worrisome thoughts. Show kind and curious attention to these symptoms. Recognize that thoughts are just thoughts, and we don’t’ have to believe our thoughts or be controlled by them. We can just say – “Oh yeah, there’s that worry bug thought again.” And let it be.
- Strengthen their relaxation skills with mindful breathing exercises. First practice how to relax your body, then to refocus your mind.
- Normalize how it’s okay to feel nervous, and model how you can still do things even when you feel that way. Brainstorm with your child, not for them. Encourage them to notice ways they’ve gotten through scary times before. Focus on realistic thinking and practical next steps.
- Celebrate little successes along the way. Let them know you believe in them. Focus more on what your child can do than what they can’t – more on resilience than illness. Notice and praise steps in the right direction.
The key to living more happily doesn’t involve eliminating stress and anxiety. It involves making peace with the stress in our lives, accepting our anxious feelings, and committing to living our lives anyway.
Peter Montminy, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist, mindfulness teacher, loving husband and dad. He invites you to join in an ongoing conversation that seeks to restore sanity to humanity – one child at a time. Join us at www.AMindfulVillage.com.