How to help today’s anxious kids

Anxiety is plaguing our youth today. Parents are searching for answers as to why. Early Childhood expert, Dr. Sheryl Ziegler, thinks the answers might be simpler that you think.

anxious kids

A few weeks ago, I came across an article written by a Baptist pastor at a church in North Carolina. He essentially shared his utter disbelief about the state of stress that today’s youth live with. He has some excellent observations like how there is a “collective sense of stress and pressure” among kids today. He noticed that kids are always on and how they can get notifications at any time that they have failed a test or that an assignment is due. I also see that they find out about making a team, getting the leading role in a play or that their friends have actually been making memes about them behind their backs through apps or group texts. The ‘always on’ technology world has caused kids to function in a state of survival with constant pings reminding them of what feels like impending doom.

To compound this problem, it is near impossible for kids to live in the present as they are always worried and reminded about their futures. The idea that every grade or assignment has some significant meaning to what college they get into weighs heavily on them. I know middle school students who are already taking SAT prep classes and are being given assignments about their future careers. I try to remind these kids that college was originally a place where they could explore what they wanted to do in life. That their brains are not fully developed until age 25 and that they can change their minds — that they can have multiple interests that can change by the week or by their mood or the way the wind is blowing.

Pastor Thornton put it well when he remarked that technology serves as a constant source of intrusion in their lives. He also pointed out that today’s kids live with the burden of their parent’s “economic anxiety.” And with more and more parents overspending to give their child advantages in life such as tutors and private coaching, the pressure starts to multiply. The Pastor points out that millennials are on course to do financially worse than previous generations and that the message of ‘hard work pays off’ is lost on this generation. We cannot guarantee that working hard will pay off for young adults or for their children because financial hardships, competitive and expensive education doesn’t necessarily lead to a career that will be financially rewarding or even fulfilling.

After twenty years of treating children dealing with stress, anxiety and burnout I have some strong thoughts that I believe can make a real difference for the next generation of children. While these ideas can be done with one kid at a time, it really requires a collective community to make a real impact. It crosses gender, race and socioeconomic lines. It’s simple yet incredibly challenging. It will challenge everything in your being that tells you to push your child, to give them the best, to afford them more than you ever had.

The answer? Back off. Let go.

Stop wrapping your identity up in your child’s grades, scores, how fast they can run or how well they can catch a ball. Let them be bored. Let them make their own friends. Take their phones away at night. Eat dinner together. Talk in the car. Make eye contact with each other. Talk about what’s going on in the world when they have access to being online. Tell them your opinions and ask them theirs. Get to know their friends. Talk to their parents. Know where their friends live. Talk about the hard stuff in middle school — suicide, depression, drugs, and sex — before someone else does that for you.

Understand that future life satisfaction has little to do with what school they went to or even where they graduated in their class. Kids who grow up to be happy and successful in life know how to get along with people. They are kind, they know how to have a conversation, they are inclusive, and they show empathy. They know how to take responsibility and problem solve. Tomorrow’s healthy, well adjusted, successful adults are not necessarily straight A students with sports scholarships. They are good leaders, they work well in groups at school or on the field. They look you in the eye and say ‘hello’ and they have down time.

These opinions listed above are not just my own. Those of us, therapists and educators, who spend our days working with groups of children know it. We see what is happening to children and we want you to listen. If you don’t want to take it from us, just pay attention to rates of anxiety, depression and suicide. These statistics alone make it clear that whatever parents are currently doing isn’t working.

However, collectively we can make a difference and reverse this worrying trend by just letting our kids be kids.