More people suffer from anxiety today than did during the Great Depression and after the recent global pandemic, this number is increasing exponentially. Children, younger in age than ever before, are experiencing not the normal worries that you would expect, but anxiety that is health or social-based.
The first time I heard that I was stunned. How is that even possible? But the research says it all. 1 in 5 females suffers anxiety and the number of 15/16-year-olds with anxiety has doubled in the last 30 years.
In asking ‘Why?’ or ‘What causes anxiety?’ there tends to be a fear of blame.
Whose fault is this? There is no place for blame as it serves nobody and only creates more problems. Parenting is hard. Teaching is hard. And nobody is setting out to make children anxious.
However, by looking at some of the factors that contribute to the problem, we may see adjustments we can make which might make life a little easier for anxious children and young people.
What causes anxiety?
1. SOCIAL MEDIA
The average teenager checks their social media up to 50 times a day. That is 50 times that they are looking at Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, Snapchat or Instagram and making comparisons. It is likely that in these comparisons they are coming off second best, especially considering the pervasion of apps to improve appearance. They do not understand that these platforms are presenting an idealised version of each person’s reality, a so-called highlights reel.
2. BODY IMAGE
Anxiety around body image is widespread. Young girls are bombarded by a sexualised version of femininity through media channels. The music and advertising industries could be accused of creating a role for women that is subservient and one-dimensional. This role does not serve women, yet girls are shaped by it by pure force of repetition, this is beginning to change but it is slow progress. However, there is still a standard set that is not realistic, impossible to live up to and in my opinion, not desirable.
In the past, we tended to think this was a problem only for girls but with the increase in expectations for boys to conform to the perceived idealism of what is ‘masculine’ many more boys are suffering from eating disorders including bigorexia, a mental health condition which obsesses on muscle mass.
3. RAISED ON PRAISE
The star chart has a lot to answer for, many of my clients have heard me say this. From a very young age, children are taught that we do things for external rewards. In trying to ensure that our children have high self-esteem have we unwittingly compromised the development of individual character? Our society has become big on attainment and low on values and this extends into education.
The processes of Instagram, Facebook and TikTok reinforce this need for praise. Children are rewarded with ‘likes’. They are given very definite messages about what is good and what isn’t. Unfortunately, it seems that pulling a trout-pout and showing a lot of cleavage is what is being rewarded. If your post does not achieve maximum ‘likes’, anxiety around self-worth is felt.
It is hard for parents and teachers to compete with the internet in shaping what a young person should be valuing. Integrity, hard work and kindness are not rewarded with a lot of likes! Anxiety comes when we do not deeply understand that our value lies in more than the way we look.
4. LACK OF PLAY
Children are highly scheduled from a young age; a lack of play and ‘free time’ is one of the reasons for our children’s anxiety. While we are desperately pushing children to reach milestones in reading, motor skills and social outcomes, we have forgotten about the natural development that comes with play.
In play, children learn to resolve conflict, regulate their emotions, socialise and make decisions. They are receiving ‘real world’ feedback and they are learning that they have an impact on their world. When we take them away from this developmental play, we deprive them of coping skills that will help them in an ever-changing world. Skills that will make them feel safe and protect them from anxiety.
5. ATTACHMENT ISSUES
There are two extremes in parenting that cause attachment issues that can lead to anxiety:
There are helicopter parents who constantly hover over their children keeping them out of harm’s way. They are the ‘no, no, no’ parents who don’t let their children take safe risks and establish their own boundaries. For these children, the only safe place is with Mum and Dad. They have not been given the confidence to safely explore their world and learn all the skills that help them cope with challenges.
Get out there and get on with it is when children are pushed out into the world prematurely creating insecure attachment. While aiming to give their children a head start in the world and ‘toughen them up’, parents sometimes create fear. In trying to get children to achieve and be capable they miss signals of basic need. It is okay for children to need their parents. Developing and maintaining strong attachments is a protective factor against anxiety.
It can be very hard to get the balance right. And as previously said, nobody intends to create anxiety in his or her child.
6. THE CULTURE OF DOOM AND DESPAIR
The internet allows us continuously to access the news -. Television competes with this by having almost constantly available news bulletins. That is a lot of time and space to fill with news. As there really is only a limited amount of real news content in any one day, news agencies must create sensation and drama to keep us engaged.
Unfortunately, this dramatic, 24-hour exposure to disaster and mayhem has created a real culture of fear. When I was a child, the news was on at 6pm. If you missed it, you missed it. The other 23 ½ hours a day were about friends, family, hobbies, and school. It was actually quite difficult to be afraid of the world back then. There is no doubt this culture of doom is affecting our children.
If, as a parent or teacher, you can offset the barrage of subliminal messages, and allow your children to flourish by encouraging play and problem-solving, you will be doing a better job than any therapist in empowering your children to deal with any anxieties that may arise through the natural course of life. You can’t avoid anxiety but you can learn to process it appropriately.
Why is my child anxious?
Some children are more likely to have worries and anxiety than others.
Children often find change difficult and may become anxious following a house move or when starting a new school.
Children who have had a distressing or traumatic experience, such as a car accident or house fire, may suffer from anxiety afterwards.
Family arguments and conflict can also make children feel insecure and anxious.
Teenagers are more likely to suffer from social anxiety than other age groups, avoiding social gatherings or making excuses to get out of them.
Some anxiety is entirely normal, a reaction to new, unfamiliar or uneasy situations and most children learn to overcome these feelings which then gives them a sense of confidence.
Some children, however, get locked in the fear of new, unfamiliar or unease and it becomes a debilitating threat that limits not only their lives but the lives of those around them.
How can you help an anxious child?
Our top tips for helping an anxious child are:
Validate, spend time listening and understand their fears – they are real for them.
Try to see the situation from their perspective and not just your own.
Cultivate an openness to allow freedom of speech, and verbalising of emotions without judgement.
Have a balance of offering possible solutions whilst also empowering children to come up with their own solutions – it is all part of normal development.
Focus on times when they have been confident and have overcome fears or difficult situations so that children can learn to transfer their skills from those situations to ones they are anxious about.
Give them plenty of time to process, especially if they have had periods of anxiety, it takes time for the action-ready body to move back to rest and digest.
Encourage play, gross motor action activities, activities such as reading, drawing, creating, music or other hobbies that they enjoy, this all helps to balance emotions out so that they can feel calm and confident.
Journal worries or anxieties, getting them out of your head and onto a piece of paper can help create distance from the ‘thing’. (A further two options are to a) rip up the worries or b) create counter viewpoints to give perspective).
Laugh – the best way to disperse the hormones created by anxiety.
Breathe – using belly breathing techniques is another great way to disperse the hormones created by anxiety.
If your child is struggling with anxiety and you need support please say email@example.com to find out more.