Years ago, when Dr. Greg Handel was a Pop Warner Football coach, he worked his young players hard: “I mean, I was having them run and play hard.” Not far into the intense football season, he noticed a troubling trend: After hours on the football field, many of his players were picked up by their parents to head straight to hockey practice.
“They were going from one organized sport to another,” he remembers. “And we’re not talking any easy type of sport, these were very physically draining.”
Handel, a psychologist and clinical director at Thriveworks in Westborough, was rightly concerned for his players’ physical health, and he knew this type of hefty schedule can do just as much damage to a child’s emotional and mental state.
“We’re keeping them too busy,” he adds. “I think there’s also this sense of entitlement that kids have. Everything parents do is centered around their kids. ‘My kid wants to do dance, he wants to play soccer. He wants to do this and that and I’m going to make that happen and schedule it all in.’”
The pitfall? “When you feel entitled, that can lead to stress,” Handel explains. “You never get what you really want, a child learns to never feel satisfied. We begin to believe if we just work harder, we should always get what we want. That mindset can cause a tremendous amount of anxiety.”
Parents are stressed and anxious, too. “I think now, compared to 20 years ago, there’s a lot more emphasis on how to raise your kids and what you should do to raise them to be successful,” he adds. “It [falsely] implies there is a way to raise good kids, and if you do this, that, and the other thing, your kids will turn out fine.”
Yesterday vs. today
Rates of anxiety among young people in America have been increasing steadily for more than 20 years, according to Psychology Today. And most experts agree that the rise is not simply a case of more children being officially diagnosed, it’s the shift in a young person’s belief that they have control over their own destiny. That belief has declined sharply over the decades.
“Kids had anxiety 20 years ago, too,” Handel says. “The reasons have just changed. Bullying on the playground used to cause anxiety and stress for kids 20 years ago. Happy to say a lot has been done to prevent that type of stress with teaching and no-tolerance rules, but new stressors are out there.”
A study headed by Jean Twenge at San Diego State University a few years ago found that young people have made a significant shift toward extrinsic goals and away from intrinsic ones — those that relate to our development as a person and what brings meaning to our lives. Extrinsic goals focus on outward desires, such as material objects and other people’s opinions. Similar to Handel’s assessment, culture, media, and most every other modern-day sources are telling our kids — and parents — that happiness depends on appearance, popularity, and material goods.
It’s as if we can program our kids to be perfect people, Handel adds: “Imagine the stress that puts on a kid to be perfect.”
Is all anxiety bad?
“A certain amount of anxiety is good,” explains Dr. Janine Stasior, board-certified pediatric neuropsychologist and licensed psychologist at Child Development Network in Lexington. “For instance, if a child plays soccer and before the game is able to channel some of that anxious energy toward the goal of winning the game, that would be considered OK.”
Anxiety is normal depending on the quantity and timing of the anxious feelings, she continues. As a baby, any anxiety is easily quelled by a parent because their needs are being met. Separation anxiety is a very common milestone at about 10 months of age.
“But, in some instances, children’s anxious behaviors become dramatic and extreme and the timing just doesn’t make sense,” she notes. “If a child becomes panicked every time a teacher calls on him, that may be outside of the normative.”
According to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA), 1 out of 8 children have some type of anxiety disorder, which are characterized by persistent, irrational, and overwhelming worry, fear, and anxiety that interfere with daily activities. These are real disorders that affect how the brain functions. Symptoms vary, but they can include irritability, sleeplessness, jitteriness, or physical symptoms such as headaches and stomachaches.
ADAA states that the difference between an anxious phase and an anxiety disorder is that a phase is temporary and usually harmless. Children who suffer from an anxiety disorder experience fear, nervousness, shyness, and avoidance of places and activities that persist despite the helpful efforts of parents, caretakers, and teachers. Parents concerned about their child exhibiting anxiety are encouraged to consult their pediatrician. Mental health professionals can help identify the source of anxiety and provide skills and strategies to help children achieve their personal best in and outside of school.
At home, parents can help lessen a child’s anxiety via the five tips below:
1. Teach kids how to relax. “It’s perfectly OK to allow for downtime. Not every moment of every day must be planned and scheduled to revolve around a child’s needs and wants,” Handel says. Instead, make time for family time or quiet time.
2. Learn to say no. Why is it so hard for parents to set limits? Handel suggests that parents think they are not being good parents if their children aren’t getting everything that they want.
“My parents were much more likely to say no to me,” he said. “And I told my kids, they were not doing hockey because we couldn’t afford it, instead they played basketball. Sure, they whined and cried about it for 10 minutes, but their life was no worse off.”
3. Know what they really need. Find a mirror. Now look in it. That’s it. That’s what they need: a human, smiling face to connect with, Stasior says.
4. Limit technology. According to a report by Common Sense Media (commonsensemedia.org), U.S. teens spend nine hours using media every day. That’s strictly for their enjoyment and doesn’t include using technology for homework. Stasior says this can also lead to anxiety and/or stressful feelings.
“There is stress in technology due to the lack of reciprocity and empathy,” she notes. “The problem isn’t that we utilize technology, the problem is that it’s being used in lieu of a person. Children need full relationships with adults who care in context of an environment that is nurturing.”
And that also means parents need to keep track of their own technology addictions. “Just because they have access to tech 24/7 doesn’t mean tech should come between them and their child. Childhood is fleeting,” she adds.
5. Make time for unsupervised, undirected play. Children’s freedom to play and explore on their own — independent of direct adult guidance and direction — has declined greatly in recent decades. In a Psychology Today article, “The Decline of Play and Rise in Children’s Mental Disorders” Dr. Peter Gray writes: “By depriving children of opportunities to play on their own, away from direct adult supervision and control, we are depriving them of opportunities to learn how to take control of their own lives. We may think we are protecting them, but in fact we are diminishing their joy, diminishing their sense of self-control, preventing them from discovering and exploring the endeavors they would most love, and increasing the odds that they will suffer from anxiety, depression, and other disorders.”