Rising Anxiety in Youth
Educators and clinicians across northern Virginia are seeing a significant increase in the number of youth who are experiencing some level of anxiety.
We’re also seeing the onset of anxiety start at a younger age and many children are significantly compromised by its affects. There is an increased prevalence of school avoidance, school refusal and somatic complaints.
Anxiety can take many forms and some students are very good at masking it.
Some students wear their emotions on their face. For those students, the anxiety is quite apparent. A student might have a look, their cheeks get red, their speech quickens or their expression changes.
Other students hide their anxiety quite well, but parents report that when their child comes home, he or she falls apart. Some students start to exhibit physical symptoms, such as headaches and stomach aches. Other students start having difficulty sleeping.
The question weighing on our minds is why? What is causing the increase in student anxiety? Unfortunately, there is no one cause or simple answer but rather a convergence of factors including modern day parenting, school culture, and media.
No, we are not assigning blame. You know your child best and are an incredible resource to them. However, I do think it’s helpful for us as parents to look inward and reflect on what we do that can inadvertently intensify or lesson our child’s anxiety. Parents in this greater Washington DC area tend to be highly educated, accomplished and driven. For many of us, there is a frenetic quality to our days.
Some children need a lot of activity. However, other kids need considerable down time. Some need both. It’s important for parents to ascertain what amount of activity is healthy for their child. Some kids like to have something structured to do every day after school. For others, too much structured after school activity time is overwhelming. So, it’s important to match the level of activity to your child’s temperament and not to your aspirations. For example, if your child tends to be more introverted, they are going to need some recovery time after school. They’ve been around peers all day and while it might be enjoyable, it’s also exhausting. They may need some alone time to read a book or do something else solitary. In contrast, kids who tend to be more extraverted gain energy by being around others; they may want to hang out with their friends after school, go to a park or do some sort of physical activity. Again, what your child needs depends on who they are and neither choice is bad or wrong.
The flip of that is, you do not and should not have your entire life scheduled around your kids. It’s not healthy for them and it’s not healthy for parents. It’s reasonable for your child to be in 1-2 extracurricular activities. However, if you are driving your child from one activity to another every day, that’s too much. You’re running yourself ragged for what? What message are you sending to your kids? Teaching your kids balance and to make choices is an important skill to model. So is saying no. What would happen if you preserved one night a week where nothing was scheduled for anyone in your family – a stay in or family night?
Many parents are afraid that their child will miss something if they don’t have them on the best sports team, making straight As and speaking three languages…by sixth grade. There is a fear among many parents that by NOT doing something, your child will somehow miss out and then not get in to college XYZ. The information that schools are telling us about what’s required to get into college doesn’t help.
If you’re a parent who is anxious, you CAN help your anxious child. Model self-awareness, self-care, forgiveness and self-love. Be open about your own challenges, and be willing to work on your own anxiety.
The emphasis on passing SOLs and accelerated learning has seeped down into our elementary schools. Recess and specials are compromised while academic learning is intensified. The fun is slowly being sucked out of learning as teachers are tasked with increasing numbers of requirements and standards they must adhere to. In Arlington, where The Sycamore School resides, our public schools routinely assign World Geography to all 8th grade students; this is a 9th grade class, for which they earn a high school credit. Why is a 9th grade class the norm for an 8th grade student? Shouldn’t accelerating learning opportunities be for individual students, who, when appropriate, qualify, versus assigning a 9th grade class to all 8th graders? It is not uncommon for 8th graders to be carrying three to four high school level courses in Arlington Public Schools.
Youth are inundated with graphic images of school shootings and other forms of violence through the many social media channels. The prevalence and accessibility of news makes it hard for people to escape what is happening in our larger world. In many ways, we’re too accessible. In addition to the lack of filter from scary events, individuals get conditioned to have immediate responses from their phones or computers. We can receive and exchange information incredibly quickly. I would argue that this contributes to our impatience and the frenetic quality of our days. Could it also be contributing to our anxiety?
The overarching question is, what do we do about it? This goes back to parental oversight and monitoring. Be mindful of how often your child is on electronic devices and what they’re being exposed to. Think about crafting times as a family that are tech free, such as dinner time. Try to do activities together as a family that are tech free. Also, regularly take time to talk with your kids. See what they’ve been exposed to and whether they have questions about it. It goes back to be present with your children and being available to help them navigate social media and address questions that might have about what they’ve been exposed to.