Rise in Anxiety and/or Depression in our Youth, What Gives?

According to a recent study in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, more than 1 in 20 US children and teens (ages 6 to 17 years old) have anxiety or depression.  Approximately 2.6 million American children and adolescents had diagnosed anxiety and/or depression in 2011-12, reports an analysis of nationwide data.  And a more recent report reflects a rise in anxiety in particular.

What is going on?

As a therapist and mother to an 11 year old boy, I am experiencing this as almost an epidemic.  It’s critical we all look at what we are doing as a society to inadvertently encourage this situation.  Our values on performance, competition, subtle “keeping up with the Jones’s” undertones as well as tendencies to compare ourselves to others are like an umbrella casting darkness over much of our American culture.  And there are other mistakes adults are getting sucked into.  In order to help our youth, we need to first be able to take some ownership of how show up in this environment.  At that point we can productively engage in the things we can do to collectively to create positive change for our children for their experience and trajectories.

Here are 3 things parents of kids and teens can do to turn the tide:

Do: Allow your child to face risk.  Rather than “helicopter” around them in an effort to avert disaster, give them the opportunity to push to their edge and build confidence.  Learning to navigate riskier situations (roughhousing, tree climbing, etc) can help children build resilience, mastery and self confidence.

Why?  Too much of a container placed around your child discourages attempts to try things, to push his/her limits.  The backlash on an emphasis on safety can be instilling fear.  The intention to protect can inadvertently be a seedling for the growth of anxiety that will be challenging to counteract later.

Do:  Make room for and celebrate failures.  There are opportunities for growth and learning when things don’t go your child’s way.  Be aware of your own responses to mistakes.  Emphasize your child’s effort over his/her ability.  They will experience successes in failures in life, help them prepare for either.

Why?  A child with too high of an expectation of performance can become a perfectionistic adult.  A perfectionist may on the surface seem to do well but they are actually riddled with anxiety and a lack of tolerance for any failure as it gets wrapped up in their self worth.

And probably the most challenging:

Do: Enforce rules around smartphone use.  A recent study from the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism found that, “most parents of children ages 13-18 felt their teens were addicted to mobile devices, and many parents felt addicted themselves.”  This is another case of do what you are asking your child to do and that is probably rethinking your relationship with your phone, this the most difficult to execute effectively.  A lot of the problem is wrapped up in social media habits which adds even complexity to this problem.  Here are some good guidelines around cell phone use for teens, in particular.

Why:  Digital devices are a major source of conflict in US family households between teens and parents.  And phone addiction is real with serious mental health consequences.  When teens were faced with giving up phones, several different studies have shown symptoms of anxiety, not knowing what to do with the extra time and in some cases physiological symptoms of withdrawal.  We ALL need to take seriously the impact digital devices (and social media) are having on our brains.  It’s no joke.  See the article Smartphone Addiction could be Changing Your Brain which includes a self-quiz.

If we as a collective cultural village wrap our arms around our children and teens in a more productive way when it comes to building resilience, teaching the lessons of success and failure and having healthier relationships with our digital devices, we can do much better.  Our children need us to.