According to the National Survey of Children’s Health, anxiety among children 6-17 is steadily on the rise. Data from 2011-2012 found that 1 in 20 US children has an anxiety diagnosis. That represents a statistically significant increase since the 2003 data; and one can only imagine that were the same data taken in 2018 that there would be a further increase. The numbers only go up with adulthood: 18.1% of the over 18 population every year is found to have an anxiety disorder (This includes anxiety diagnoses like OCD and social anxiety in addition to General Anxiety Disorders, making it the most common mental illness in the U.S.).
How it Used to Be
Data on whether or not rates of anxiety have increased in general in the United States are inconclusive. But from my own experience, that was one of the main reasons I made a shift from teaching kids to supporting parents. I started teaching in 1990. In the early years of my career, I generally saw parents at back-to-school night and at the fall and spring parent teacher conferences. Parents rarely contacted me unless there was something big going on at home—often an illness, loss of a job or the death of a grandparent. Parents trusted that unless they heard from me, their child was on track at school.
In the same vein, it used to be, you asked a 7th grader what he or she wanted to be when they grew up and you heard “Michael Jordan” or “Madonna.” In other words, kids were still reaching for the stars. A child might say she wanted to be an Olympic skater. Have you been skating long, I would ask? Yes, she would say, about 3 months! In other words, she had no concrete awareness that becoming an Olympic athlete represent hours and hours and years and years of dedication. That suggests that no one was telling her it was an unrealistic goal: They were happy for her to have her dreams. No one expected realistic life goals from a middle school student.
How It Is Now
Flash forward 15 years and I began to see a big change. Now when I asked them, What do you want to be when you grow up, I would get a very serious response like, “Well, I’ll go to Stanford if I can get it, but I don’t know if I’ll major in computer science and minor in business or major in business and minor in computer science. And then I’ll start by going to work for a big firm like Google but someday I want to do a start up.” I learned not to chuckle and remark, “Glad you have it all figured out!” My students simply didn’t see why I should be at all amused by their response. Eventually, when the trend grew, I was not in the least bit amused—just worried that my students were giving up childhood too soon.
At first, I thought parents’ ambitions were getting in the way of their kids dreaming the impossible. The more I talked to parents, however, it seemed to me that to the extent they were pushing their kids, they were primarily being driven by anxiety not ambition. Parents were worried that they were failing their children. Were they good parents? Should they be getting their child a tutor? Should they have their child not be in the school play if it interfered with their piano, ballet, chess and art lessons? Or could I accept their child’s assignment late so that she could be in the play and still keep up with all her other activities? Wasn’t the play a good learning opportunity?
Much of Anxiety Comes From Fear of Failing As a Parent
More and more parents were fearing that if they weren’t vigilant, they would be failing to provide their child some opportunity which in turn would close the door to getting into the desired private high school or top ranked university. Recently I asked a parent of elementary school children why her kids were doing year-round soccer if it wasn’t their favorite sport. She sighed and explained to me that in her town only kids who had been doing year-round soccer got onto the high school team—and she wanted that to be available to her own children. Now, I am in favor of proactive parenting, but doing hours and hours of extra practice in third grade for a sport you might or might not want to play in high school seems like a big gamble.
Fear of Missed Opportunities Has Parents Controlling Things Too Tightly
I thought I had heard it all until this week in a FB group I came across a request from a mom that left me flabbergasted: “I'm wondering what swim schools you might have enjoyed for parent + me swim lessons in the South Bay, and, in the long run I may be interested in putting her in competitive swim, so if there was a school that offered beginner lessons to competitive swim, that would be ideal.” This is for her 6-month old baby! How great to want to spend some time with your child. I also have no problem with kids learning to swim young. Many seem to take to it, well, like a fish in water. But to be anticipating already that you might want your child to swim competitively?! To me that is crazy making. If you already have that in mind, how likely are you to be responsive to your child’s true interests and motivations? What if your child likes to swim and thinks it is fun, but that is it? What if she does not want to do it in a structured way? What if she is anxious because she fears that if she does makes a fuss about doing it, she will anger or let down her mom?
Parental Anxiety Sucks the Joy out of Parenting and Adds to Children’s Stress
Again, let’s assume that mom’s asking about competitive swim team is not about her own ego but is about her determination to be the best mom she can be for her daughter—and that competitive swimming might just be the deal breaker that gives her daughter the edge in the future. I get wanting the best for you child, I really do. And I’m a fan of purposeful parenting—of having a long-term plan for how you are going to develop the character skills that are going to support your child in adulthood. But worrying about competitive anything for your six-month old baby must be so energy draining. What a burden this mother is placing on herself. God forbid that she get 5 years down the road and realize that it is too late, that now her daughter can’t make the competitive swim team because she has been at the wrong swim school all these years. It seems to me like an excellent way to suck the joy out of parenting and to color every interaction with your child with worry about her future—and by extension worry about her performance today.
I have no concrete research but, in my experience, the emphasis on kids’ performance, rather than a confident belief that they’re coming along nicely, is one of the reasons that kids are experiencing more anxiety than before. Yes, I know there are other reasons—like a lot more access to scary news about the world—but when I talk to kids about their anxieties most of them do not cite 9/11 or school shootings as their key concerns. Most concerns are close to home, including things like fear of getting lost or being separated from one’s parents, fear of the dark or of monsters and goblins, and as they get older fear of being laughed at or made fun of. Even among kids who are rebelling, there is an underlying tension between wanting to assert one’s independence and at the same time an enormous fear of disappointing one’s parents. The underlying condition here is that anxious children do not feel safe in their world—and they do not feel it is in their control to be safe.
Next week, I will go into ways parents can increase their children’s sense of safety and security.