The Rise in Childhood Anxiety

Last week, I read Autumn Grace’s post about reducing the stigma of childhood anxiety. Her post explained the various forms of childhood anxiety that young children experience and that up until recently, this has been a primarily ignored issue as “many people are in disbelief when you tell them that children, even in elementary school, can experience anxiety and depression, because they feel that children’s problems aren’t ‘serious enough’ or they aren’t ‘old enough’ to experience serious emotions.” Mental health concerns in adults have been heavily stigmatized until recently when the stigma has begun to be discussed in popular culture. Because this is an issue in adults, it is understandable that depression and anxiety are stigmatized and discounted in children because of the mindset above.

Having dealt with anxiety myself, with friends and family members, I found this post particularly interesting. I began to wonder if the reason that the stigma has begun to be addressed in our culture is because more people are experiencing it and mental health issues simply cannot be “hidden” anymore. From my own experience with anxiety, finding people to discuss how it feels and how to cope with it was critically important in feeling supported and being determined to overcome it. I was shocked to find out that many of my classmates in friends in high school were dealing with moderate to severe anxiety, most of which was somehow related to school work or outside expectations (parental, academic, societal). At this point in this post, it is important to clarify that the term ‘anxiety’ is used to refer to various emotions and conditions. ‘Anxiety’ can refer to a feeling of nervousness and worry, usually out of one’s control. It can also refer to ‘anxiety disorders’ in which one feels panic, fear and uneasiness due to changes in brain chemistry (read more about these distinctions here).

From this experience and the post, I began to wonder whether childhood and youth anxiety rate are increasing possibly due to changing standards and pressures in our culture, specifically in education as there have been many shifts in the grammar and pressures of school in the relatively recent past. As I researched, I was amazed to find that high school and college stress is five to eight times greater than it was fifty years ago (from the Psychology Today article link below). These rates are greater than they were during the Great Depression, WWII and the Cold War. These events caused major turmoil in our country and various parts of the world, yet youth are more stressed now than they were in these times of physical and psychological danger.

What could possibly lead to such a shift in mental health in the past fifty years? The underlying factor in this change is that children perceive less control over their lives than they did in the 1950’s and before. This change in the “external locus of control” is a result of increased crime rates, increased divorce rates, decreased levels of trust (related to mass media), decreased social connectedness, increased environmental dangers (crime rates, AIDS, nuclear war and suicide rates) and increased geographic mobility (read more about these factors here). Because children perceive their external world as changing and relationships are less stable (divorce rates, moving houses and having to make new friends or attend a different school, decreased time spent in face-to-face relationships), there is an increased sense in being out-of-control. Furthermore, with decreased relationship security, children do not have as many people to talk to about how they feel or how to deal with these feelings in a healthy way.

While the above factors are typically out of the child’s control, there are also factors that contribute to a decreased external locus of control that can be influenced by a child. Psychology Today details these factors. The study that they discuss found that the overall decreased sense of control are linked to a shift in goals from being intrinsic (being happy, performing to the best of one’s abilities) to being extrinsic (financial security, materialism, good looks and popularity). Because these goals are subjective and relative to others success in them or perception of you in achieving these goals, reaching one’s goals has become less tangible and definable by an individual to being defined by others.

These societal shifts and shifts in goals has led to decreased stability in identity, which increases anxiety. The above changes have related to various stages in youth development typically beginning in later elementary school and continuing through college. However, there is another change that has occurred over the past fifty years that affects children’s perception of control earlier in development, and thus, has a greater impact on them. This is the decrease in free play in school. This TED Talk describes the changes in the structure of schooling in terms of free play and length of the school day (which affects free play) and in what play outside of school has become. Free play allows children to develop social and emotional skills, which helps them to feel in control of themselves regardless of what goes on around them. Through play, children learn skills needed for adulthood and learn how to self-teach (through experimentation) and learn with and through others. Because this has decreased and most play is not supervised and adult directed, kids feel less in control and less valued. This leads to an increase in anxiety.

As one can see, there are many factors that have changed in the past fifty years that have led to children feeling more out-of-control of their lives than fifty years earlier. While these changes have occurred quickly, they can also be recognized and reversed. Integrating free play into preschool and elementary school is as simple as changing curriculum or setting aside time for it. Allowing kids to have a say in what they do or to play without supervision or direction would increase their sense of control. There are simple solutions to this growing problem.

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