Anxiety disorders are the most frequently occurring mental health problem in the U.S., followed by depression. Children’s and teens’ struggles alarmingly comprise a huge part of this anxiety surge.
As a therapist, the four areas I mostly see kids struggling with are:
- Academic demands of heavy school workloads
- Peer-related anxieties such as fitting in, popularity, bullying, dating
- Body image issues
- Family issues such as parental pressure, dysfunctions in the family
Social media, while offering teens highly convenient ways to stay connected, also feeds young people with a misdirected, damaging message: “Everyone else has it all together and you don’t.” Both parents and kids are inundated by digital devices more than ever, and consequently I see the family unit being strained.
These alluring electronic devices also cause sleep deprivation. Kids are unfortunately staying up way too late at night, which increases depression and anxiety because of sleep rhythms being knocked off balance. Not surprisingly, a lot of exhausted kids who feel depressed start to feel very anxious because they are worn down, and kids who are anxious start to feel depressed, creating a vicious cycle.
Symptoms of anxiety and depression can overlap and vary from child to child and among age groups. Kids may become more irritable or angry, or may become avoidant and withdraw or shut down. Classic physical manifestations are changes in sleep or appetite or headaches and stomachaches. Behaviorally, they may get behind in their studies; have meltdowns; not want to go to school; or lash out at teachers, peers or siblings. Especially with depression, they may become lethargic or tearful.
What’s particularly troubling with anxiety and depression is that they significantly impact two skills crucial for children and teens: calming down and problem-solving. But parents can help.
Parents are kids’ emotional coaches
How we talk to our kids — and especially how we listen to them — will affect how they cope. Listening to and validating kids is just as important as loving them, at all ages.
For calming down, we can teach diaphragmatic breathing and other mindfulness techniques. For problem-solving, we need to let our kids know it’s OK to talk about struggles, then model how to put them in perspective. For example, “I can see you are really sad about not making the school soccer team, but how cool that you’ll get to play with your friend in the community league.”
It’s also helpful to let kids know that difficult emotions are OK and that everyone is anxious or sad at times even if they may not show it. Listen to their worries and reassure them that having feelings of anxiety or sadness doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with them. It’s also important to remind them that life is a series of experiences and experiments — making mistakes is part of the journey, and if something doesn’t work out they can try something else.
Modeling gratitude helps tremendously as well. You can’t feel anxious about the future if you’re focused on appreciating what you have now. Gratitude fills us up — it’s a natural antidote to anxiety and depression.
Counseling can also be beneficial. When getting outside support, it’s important to be sensitive to any stigma kids may feel. Be open and honest about your concerns, but also say, “Maybe there are things I’m not seeing or ways I could be more understanding or communicate more effectively with you.” So often kids come to me having absorbed the message, “We’re going to go to counseling to get you fixed,” as opposed to “I can see you struggling, and it’s OK, we all struggle — let’s talk to someone to get through this rough time.”
Some behaviors require definite intervention: indications of self-harm, feelings of hopelessness, rage or violent, aggressive behavior against people or property. For any persistent or major changes in behavior, especially lasting over a period of two weeks or of sudden increased severity, please see a trained mental health professional.
Otherwise, parents can listen to and empathize with their kids’ disappointments, then model how to calm down, problem solve, reboot with gratitude and try again.
Jeffrey Bernstein, Ph.D., is a nationally recognized clinical psychologist with over 30 years of experience. He holds a doctorate in Counseling Psychology from the State University of New York at Albany and completed his post-doctoral internship at the University of Pennsylvania Counseling Center. Dr. Bernstein has authored five books, including Mindfulness For Teen Worry, 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child, 10 Days to a Less Distracted Child, Why Can’t You Read My Mind? and Liking the Child You Love.