Every parent is well aware of the mental health issues facing young people. Nearly one in every three teens will suffer from an anxiety disorder, according to the National Institutes of Health; one in 10 will have a major depressive episode. And a 2020 study published by the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry recently confirmed that teens' depression and anxiety can be linked to social media use — but even if we could pluck social media out of our children’s lives, they’d still have to contend with climate change, school shootings, opioid addiction, and a long list of other terrors.
There’s a lot for both parents and kids to be rightfully anxious about, and it’s understandable that parents want to jump in and save our children from anxiety-provoking situations when we can.
Truth be told, though, we don’t just want to protect our kids from feeling anxious; we want to protect ourselves from witnessing it. Our tolerance is also low, and our emotional reserves are also depleted. We’re too anxious to also watch them struggle.
Yet in our rush to protect our children from anxiety, a curious paradox has evolved. We push our kids as much as the previous generation did us about things like academic achievements and sports, but we’re also intently focused on helping them avoid life’s normal stressors. We say things to them like Why don’t we cross the street? That way the dog won’t scare you, or Let’s have the sleepover at our house. I know you don’t like sleeping in a strange bed or even You’re nervous about learning to drive? Let’s wait a year to get your permit.
But there is a world of difference between feeling anxious and having an anxiety disorder and, in attempting to make our kids’ lives less stressful, we confuse the developmental benefits of normal anxiety with the damage caused by chronic anxiety disorders.
We’re all anxious from time to time; typically this serves as a biological early warning system. Anxiety disorders, on the other hand, don’t warn or protect us: They interfere with learning, adaptation, well-being, physical health and quality of life.
But barking dogs, first-time sleepovers and driving — which are also stressors its easy to remove from our kids — have nothing to do with the increased rates of anxiety disorders among kids. The more malignant causes of anxiety lurk in the cultural enclaves and assumptions of our environments and peer groups, when we say things like She can sleep on the weekend, or He’ll stop pulling his hair once he gets into an Ivy League school.
The challenge for parents is to be aware of the difference between our kids' normal anxiety and anxiety disorders, as well as how the two are related.
When we repeatedly interrupt our kids’ normal experiences to save them from experiencing any kind of remote negative feeling, it heightens both their anxiety and ours. We become more edgy and hyper-vigilant, and our kids aren’t given the chance to develop bravery and self-confidence: Yeah, I was nervous, but I managed that. They don't develop the skills needed to navigate a rapidly changing world or tackle its complex problems.
What they may eventually develop, though, is an anxiety disorder — the end result of being denied any opportunity to learn from experience and see themselves as resilient and capable.
If accommodating to our kids’ anxieties isn’t helping them and is in fact disabling them, what might actually help? We can acknowledge our own anxiety and how it impacts our parenting. We can calmly work to distance ourselves from practices that undermine our children’s growth. We can actively promote a love of learning and risk-taking in our children, even if it means loosening up on the demand for high marks in every class, or excelling in every club a kid attends.
And we can refrain from fanning the flames of our children’s anguish about a party they didn’t get invited to, the soccer team they didn't make, or the A they didn't get. We can refuse to give in to — or give voice to — our own fears about how these minor, short-term troubles could supposedly derail our long-term plans for them.
We need to build confidence in our kids by showing them that we have faith in their capacity to manage challenges: there is value in statements like “I think you can handle it” and “You’ve got this” when they’re tackling things just a bit challenging. Showing our confidence in our kids encourages the development of confidence in them.
At the same time, we can be alert to sources of chronic anxiety: too much homework, too much emphasis on grades or particular colleges and, for girls in particular, too much emphasis on appearance (though boys are not remotely immune to those pressures). Those are all moments where we as parents can intervene with an adult perspective to ease any momentary worry that might eventually turn into an anxiety disorder.
None of this advice is earth-shattering: We already know we’re not supposed to snowplow, helicopter, pressure or micromanage, and that we should encourage our children’s natural proclivities. Plus, if we need a reminder of how badly too much overprotection can backfire, we can watch footage of Felicity Huffman walking into the courthouse after the college cheating scandal broke.
Yet here we are, well into a second generation of overprotected, crazy-anxious kids. What explains parents’ resistance to changing their approach?
My research and clinical practice lead me to believe it’s largely due to our uncertain era and the fear it provokes. Living in a time of relentless change causes us to be more conservative than forward-thinking, and to double down on solutions that previously worked for us.
For many parents, the statement “I went to Brown” is clear evidence of the lifelong advantages their child will also reap by going to Brown. That may well be an illusion, given that jobs 10 or 15 years from now are likely to require very different skill sets than those possessed by today’s college graduates, but stepping away from the familiar model can feel frightening and wrong. I can’t count the number of parents who have told me they don’t want to “experiment” on their kids by considering options other than the status quo.
Experimenting, though, may be exactly what these times demand, even if doing so makes us anxious. The very qualities our kids will need to thrive in the future — traits like adaptability, curiosity, creativity and optimism — are cultivated when children learn to tolerate normal anxiety, trust their instincts and take chances. We parents will have to go first and learn to live with our own anxiousness about their futures; kids learn best by watching us.