Anxiety, Anxiety! Anxiety! Anxiety! Anxiety!

anxietyWhile some things about kids have changed over time, most have not.  Their needs remain much the same. However, society (and not just in the USA) is changing, and this is causing fissures, concern, and stress in our communities in general and, specifically, is negatively impacting family life.

Many of our children are increasingly stressed, and even a perfunctory examination of the evidence makes this clear.  Michael Unger provides the scary figures for us to contemplate. Actually, if you dig even deeper, you will find that they are even worse than he suggests. The increasingly scary point to note is that this stress is showing up in alarming numbers at an earlier and earlier age, even within the young elementary child population.

The global cause of this stress is simple: we are at the start of a new epoch in history that is likely to cause tremendous dislocation as every part of our human experience is impacted: the technology revolution threatens to change the nature of work and our roles in the economy; politically, there is increasing mistrust between government and the governed: Brexit, the Red v Blue state divide; the future of the EU, and on it goes. Geopolitical forces are reshaping the world as it know it, and bringing with them uncertainty. Our world has never been more connected through Facebook, Twitter, etc. and yet, our ability to effectively communicate is much less.

Not least, the influence of once-mighty institutions such as the church, Congress, police, corporations, media, schools, etc. have all been seriously undermined. As our population has become more educated and the ease of communication greater, we have become more questioning and less willing to blindly follow our leaders.

isolationThe Loss Of Community

Locally, the ideal of “community” is fast-disappearing.  In a conversation with my wife’s grandmother when she was close to her 100th year, she mentioned this development and laid the blame squarely at the feet of….air conditioning.  She proposed that before a/c became common in homes, the hot summer nights made the stoop or porch a natural gathering place for neighbors. After a/c became the norm, people simply retreated into their homes and shut their doors.

She was a very wise lady, but I believe we can look to other factors as well, such as television, the evolving architecture of housing developments, and the planning of towns and cities without sidewalks, crime, and perhaps most importantly, the increased demands on workers, as all contributing towards making us strangers.

We now have little time for socialization, and it is harder to do. The results are that many neighborhoods often resemble ghost towns, empty during the day; community volunteerism is down as time constraints become greater; and  the culture that once allowed us a common framework of reference for casual conversation and building relationships- music, movies, three tv channels only; sports, Time magazine, etc. has exploded into a million pieces, and the fabric of our society with it.

This is not one person’s pining for the good old days- I advocate for optimism about the future. Instead, it is merely an observation of how we are in a time of tremendous change, with no clear idea, as of yet, as to where we are heading as a society, and this is very stressful for everyone.

Increasing Anxiety

Again, this anxiety is being passed down to our children.  Families are building new communities to replace those that are disappearing, but these offer problems in themselves. Parents mean well but can often focus on the wrong things: instead of a focus on their child’s core development-health, character, happiness and positive assets and outcomes, families spend too much time seeking social success for their child that is often fleeting. They worship at the feet of overly competitive teams with their absurd traveling demands or their false indulgence of handing out trophies to even the mediocre.

Schools provide A grades for B work to avoid the hassle of having to deal with difficult parents; meanwhile, they have a zero-tolerance policy for even the slightest mistake by even the youngest students, labeling them with the initial B for Bad and treating them as such; our colleges are reduced to providing more and more remedial support for students who are not ready for the academic task, while continuing to ignore the obvious social-emotional deficits that too many students bring with them.

Our community institutions and leaders are wishy-washy about requiring reasonable expectations of children, and too many parents opt for an easy life that demands little of their children in terms of who they are becoming as people, and that asks too much, too soon of them as students.

Developmental Changes

anxiety-2Early childhood teachers know what is vital for early, positive child development-play; we have 100 years of research to tell us, and yet, we force more young children to sit in a desk all day and expect them to read earlier. Anxiety-producing?

The physical process of puberty is occurring earlier and earlier as the diet of the population improves, but society fails to understand that while biology has accelerated in early adolescents, their cognitive and emotional domains continue to develop at the same pace.

We have children who may physically be more like adults, and we are exposing them to, and expecting them to behave, in ways not yet developmentally possible, with predictable results. Our high school students are our either woefully underprepared for graduation or are expected to achieve at a superhuman level. Colleges are reduced to providing more and more remedial support for students who are not ready for the academic task, while continuing to ignore the obvious social-emotional deficits that too many students are bringing with them.

Striking A Balance

So what should parents do?  Should they be “free range” parents and leave their child by the side of the road with a bottle of Perrier water and let them find their own way home to teach independence?  Should they become “helicopter “ parents planning and manipulating every aspect of their child’s life? The answer, of course, is neither because both will merely invoke anxiety.

What parents must do is to help their child achieve a balance between the demands of life and their need for happiness. You wish to see your child happy and successful, and yet this is a road that often ends up exposing the fact that your view of success and that of your child may not be the same.

Parents should follow the advice of Robert Frost in his poem, The Road Not Taken. There is a price to pay for ignoring his advice and much to be gained by allowing your child to find his own road, different from his peers.  The child who would rather play Pokemon with his friend than join the soccer team; the girl that finds parties very stressful, but her parents insist she goes; the child who does not wish to do 4 AP classes because she wants to find time for theater.  If we do not listen, or worst still, if we impose a path on our children, the anxiety and subsequent crash are inevitable.

The Importance Of Listening

Our children can deal with the anxiety that life will bring them all at some stage; they are not “snowflakes”.  However, we must develop in them that belief in themselves that is authentic and not just based on empty self-esteem.  It requires that we listen to the child and his needs. His wishes to become an authentic, happy person may mean that we as parents need to let go of areas where we hoped our child would succeed.

If a child senses that the parent is supportive and listening, then she will be ready for you to join her on that less traveled road to happiness and success- she will seek your help in planning this journey, and she will reach her destination as a much stronger person as she walks that road with you as her mentor and companion.

Our modern 24/7 society is anxiety- producing; none of us can escape having to deal with it, sometimes for a lengthy period. However, there are things a parent can do that would ease that anxiety for all members of the family. Understanding the type of anxiety a person is challenged by is the first step on the road to less stress living, and our Confident Parenting Coach website has a simple screening for the layperson that you can use to start your journey.

Anxiety is inevitable; it is how we manage it when it does happen that makes all the difference.