This morning I waved goodbye to my seven year old as he headed off to school.
This afternoon I will pick him up and spend the drive home listening to stories of playing ‘tips’ in the playground. Or hearing the songs he learned in music class.
What I don’t expect to hear is he’s feeling anxious or depressed.
And yet it’s happening to children in primary and secondary schools all over Australia.
Children in Crisis: How Do We Combat The Anxiety Epidemic?
There are reports of children as young as 10 experiencing anxiety and depression, and even harming themselves.
A 2015 Australian Government Report found approximately 7% of children aged 4-17 years suffer with anxiety.
The Childhood Anxiety Epidemic
One of the first questions that springs to mind is this: are children today more anxious, or are we simply more aware?
I think back to my own schooling and my memories are mostly happy ones. I had fun in the playground, enjoyed interesting projects in class, and participated in excursions and other opportunities.
There are some unhappy memories thrown in there too. I remember the time my kindergarten teacher said my drawing wasn’t good enough, screwed it up, and tossed it into the bin. And the teasing I experienced when I was in grade six, and had to wear braces for the first time.
Sure, those things were awful, but the positive experiences outweighed them, and a hefty dose of emotional resilience definitely helped.
I don’t want to downplay mental health issues. I have family and friends who deal with depression and anxiety every single day, and I fully appreciate the implications this has for their lives.
Just thinking about children being bullied, or tormented, or experiencing trauma, and the subsequent emotional impact on them, is horrible.
But the question needs to be asked: why are we experiencing a decline in mental health?
Has our brain chemistry changed, or are there environmental factors at play?
What’s Causing All This Anxiety and Depression?
Childhood is an emotional rollercoaster. The life of a child is punctuated by highs and lows, twists and turns.
Unfortunately some children experience serious physical or emotional trauma, which no doubt has an effect on their mental wellbeing.
For other children, the biggest problem they face might be their best friend has decided to play with someone else. Don’t get me wrong, this is an important issue for young children who are still developing social and emotional skills.
The fast-paced, hyper-competitive, socially open world we live in can be overwhelming for children.
In her book Beautiful Failures: How the Quest for Success is Harming Our Kids, Lucy Clark talks about the problems in our education system and the unrealistic academic pressures it places on children.
I have seen, first hand, how these academic pressures filter down to younger children – not only in primary schools, but in early childhood settings too.
When you ask parents what they want for their children, most will respond with something along the lines of ‘to be happy’.
However, do societal values, the education system and our general way of living, being and interacting with children, support them in attaining the happiness we want for them?
Is School The Problem?
Homeschooling and un-schooling are on the rise in Australia. Many parents are choosing to remove their children from what they describe as a “disengaged and disruptive environment”.
Their number is growing, which suggests Australian families are feeling increasingly dissatisfied with the education system.
But is it just about the education system? Are the children who are displaying signs of anxiety or depression in class also showing these signs at home?
We need to take a holistic approach to understanding and supporting children who are experiencing challenges to their mental health and wellbeing.
When we were children, school was ‘switched off’ as we walked out through the gate at 3pm. Little Betty who teased us about our hair could no longer do that once the uniform came off and we were perched at the kitchen bench eating cookies.
Now, from an early age, children are constantly connected via social media or mobile phones. The teasing can continue, and has been known to escalate into cyber-bullying, often with very serious results.
Technology, for all of its advantages, has exposed our children to a whole new set of pressures and challenges that simply weren’t a problem for us when we were at that age.
According to an Australian-Dutch study, in addition to academic and social pressures, children of ‘helicopter’ parents often experienced a greater level of anxiety.
When the term helicopter parenting is thrown around, the image that springs to mind is of parents hovering over their children in the playground, stopping them from climbing up the slide.
In fact, helicopter parenting is also about parents shielding their children from failure. Although parents never want to see them fail, children actually build resilience when the chips don’t always fall their way.
Resilience is the ability to ‘bounce back’ when things don’t go as planned.
For children, this might be simply accepting they didn’t receive an award in class this week, and continuing to try next week.
Building resilience is crucial in the early years, when the brain is busy making and solidifying connections.
Our Kids Deserve More Than A Band-Aid Solution
Whatever the root cause of the increase in anxiety and depression in young children, something needs to change, and it won’t be a quick fix.
It would be naive to suggest it could solve the problem completely, but a closer inspection of the education system, in which children spend approximately 30 hours each week (around 30% of their total waking hours), would be a logical place to start.
It’s easy to suggest ‘big picture’ changes, but if we are concerned about the mental wellbeing of our children, what should we, as parents, be doing?
One of the greatest roles we have is to be advocates for our children.
Children usually don’t have a voice in the things that matter – even when those things directly concern them – so it is important we stand up and be their voice.
Being more mindful about social influences, our home environment, and the relationships we have with our children also goes a long way to building resilience and fostering mental wellbeing.
Supporting Children Who Are Struggling
Here are four tips for helping children who struggle with anxiety:
- Listen. I once read a quotation that really stuck with me: “Listen earnestly to anything your children want to tell you, no matter what. If you don’t listen eagerly to the little stuff when they are little, they won’t tell you the big stuff when they are big, because to them all of it has always been big stuff.” It is crucial we have open conversations with our children and really listen – not listen as we scroll Facebook or cook dinner, but sit and look and listen. We need to listen to the things they say, and the things they don’t say.
- Talk about school. How many times have you asked your children, “What happened at school today?” only to have them reply, “Nothing”? Try to ask them more specific questions, and even share some of your own recollections of school, to open up the conversation.
- Embrace a culture of kindness, gratitude and positivity. Parents are the most important role models in the life of a child and modelling positive attitudes and practices is crucial for wellbeing. Go around the dinner table each night, and talk about one thing you are each grateful for, or one positive thing that happened in your day.
- Seek help. Above all else, if you are concerned about your child’s mental health, seek support. Although we know our children better than anyone else does, expert advice is out there and might make a difference in your child’s life. Expert child psychotherapists who specialise in anxiety are worth their weight in gold.