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Worrywart to Worry-Wise

Why our kids are so anxious and how we can help

Published on: December 28, 2018

Worried teenager

Forty percent of Washington state eighth-graders, 53 percent of 10th-graders and 57 percent of 12th-graders were unable to stop or control their worry, according to a 2016 survey conducted by the Washington State Department of Health.

Think about that for a moment. Our kids were so stressed out, they literally cannot stop worrying.

The same study found that 28 percent of eighth-graders, 34 percent of 10th-graders and 37 percent of 12th-graders felt so sad or hopeless for two weeks or more that they stopped doing their usual activities.

That’s the definition of depression, says Harry Brown, who works with the University of Washington suicide prevention program Forefront. Twenty percent of people between the ages of 14 and 24 will develop and live with a mental health condition, and suicide is the second-leading cause of death for Washington state youth ages 15–19, according to the 2016 survey.

I’ve made it my mission to prioritize my family’s mental health just like we prioritize our physical health.

The numbers are particularly worrisome to me: I experienced anxiety and a depressive episode at age 17. That’s why, as a mom of two, I’ve made it my mission to prioritize my family’s mental health just like we prioritize our physical health.

Or, as I told my eldest when she asked why she had to go to swim class: “I want you to know what it feels like to feel good in your body.” I want both my daughters to understand what it means to feel good in their minds, too.

When stress turns into anxiety, I want them to reach for that toolbox of mental health practices that we’ve spent years filling up. Most importantly, I want them to understand that when sadness overwhelms them for too long, they need to seek help from trustworthy adults or a mental health professional.

Why are our kids so anxious?

“Anxiety is the no. 1 referral reason in our outpatient clinics,” says Kathy Melman, a clinical psychologist at Seattle Children’s Hospital.

But why? Melman notes that while “life is as stressful as it has ever been,” she does see a correlation between anxiety, social media usage and high levels of screen time.

“We have concerns about the impact [screen time] is having on well-being. There’s information that depression is on the rise for kids who spend a lot of time on screens,” she says. “The more time you spend online, the less time you are spending on connections in person and developing support systems.”

The immediacy and quick rewards of online time are a stark contrast to the work and time it takes to build relationships, study for a test or sit with uncomfortable feelings, she adds.

Of course, a direct link between media usage and anxiety is still being researched, but there is one known way that tech influences mental well-being: It often undermines sleep, says psychologist Lisa Damour.

“A really basic answer to rising rates of anxiety is that kids aren’t getting enough sleep,” she says. “Elementary-age kids need 11 hours nightly, middle schoolers need 10, and high schoolers need 9.”

In Damour’s house, there’s only one nonnegotiable household rule: Her two daughters never use technology in their bedrooms. “Sleep is the glue that holds human beings together,” she says.

There may be a third factor at play, too: societal pressure.

“There is more perceived and discussed pressure around being competitive academically and in extracurriculars,” says Cari McCarty, a research professor at the UW’s Department of Pediatrics and a member of the Center for Child and Family Well-Being. “We used to do things because they were fun, but now there’s a long to-do list that feels like part of the path to becoming a successful adult.”

What to do with that stress

Of course, there’s no one way to get rid of stress and the anxiety it can induce. In fact, Damour says, stress and anxiety aren’t always a problem.

“Culturally, people now see all anxiety as unhealthy or pathological. Clinically, we know that is not the case.”

Rather, Damour says, “Anxiety is a normal, healthy and protective function. It’s our internal alarm system alerting us that something is amiss.” It also tells us when we’re pushing ourselves to do something new and challenging, she adds.

With this in mind, Damour encourages parents to model positive stress management. Tell your kids that most healthy people feel a little anxious a few times every day, so your kids don’t become anxious about being anxious.

To help model this, Damour will ask 10th-grade students this question: “If I handed you the homework you used to get in ninth grade, would it be easy?”

“They always answer yes,” she says. “I tell them the work they are learning to handle during each new grade will make them more capable.”

Stress becomes unhealthy if it’s chronic and unrelenting. Talk about stress as an element of growth, and anxiety as a warning bell.

Another analogy to try: weight lifting. “You can’t gain strength without lifting heavy weights,” Damour says. “Tremendous growth comes from adapting to stressful demands.”

The trick is teaching our kids to embrace stress while making time for rest, recovery and fun. “Stress becomes unhealthy if it’s chronic and unrelenting. Talk about stress as an element of growth, and anxiety as a warning bell,” says Damour, author of the forthcoming book “Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls.”

Consider emotion coaching

Start “emotion coaching” when your child is a baby (or really, whenever you can), says Melman.

“Say, ‘You’re crying right now. There’s something you’re having a hard time with. If it’s not your diaper, maybe you’re hungry.’”

As your child grows, teach them how to cope with and express their fears.

“[First,] help them notice their feelings and put their feelings into words: ‘You’re feeling afraid of the spider,’” says Melman. “Then, check the facts about negative thoughts: ‘We don’t have poisonous spiders in our state.’ [Be sure to] face fears rather than avoid them: Walk through a spider web knowing that nothing terrible will happen.”

Parents also model their own tactics for dealing with stress by verbalizing their process, says McCarty. That means they should check some of that negative venting behavior in favor of solution-based thinking.

“Don’t just complain about how busy you are or how a workmate is driving you crazy. Say, ‘I made sure to take a walk break at lunch. I also realized maybe I can’t change my coworker’s mind, but I’m going to listen and address the issues in the best way I can, even though my heart will race when I tell him what I think tomorrow,’” says McCarty.

It’s never too late to start doing this, both experts add. It’s worth it every time you take a breath when you’re upset with your toddler or every time you choose silence over an angry retort to your teen, McCarty says.

This works for more challenging situations, too, says parenting coach Yvonne-Monique Aviva. She encourages parents to normalize grief.

“Teach kids how you grieve the hard parts of life and adapt to change,” she says. “A dad who’s having a health complication can talk about how he’s grieving the new normal, that he needs extra time to do what used to come easily to him.”

In time, your kid will begin developing stress-relieving strategies of their own. As long as those strategies aren’t detrimental to their health, let your kid take the lead, Damour says.

“Some will want to go for a run. Some will want to get in the shower and cry. Some will have an angry playlist or a sad playlist,” Damour says. “If grabbing their old teddy bear and watching ‘Mulan’ is their coping strategy, that’s a great 90-minute tool.”

When you should be concerned

“Mental health is like physical health,” Damour says. “A common cold isn’t worrisome, nor are short bouts of stress and anxiety.” But when those periods last longer, it’s worth paying attention.

“I like the 24-hour rule: If they’re okay 24 hours later, it’s okay not to worry,” says Damour.

But when anxiety or sadness begin interfering with daily life, it’s time to seek help.

The myth is that if we talk about suicide, we’ll make it worse,” says Brown. “The truth is if your child is thinking about it, it’s a relief and an opening to have someone ask about it.

“Take note if there are changes in eating, sleeping, energy levels, school performance and increases in physical complaints,” says Melman. “Have they stopped hanging out with their friends or participating in their usual activities?”

Don’t be afraid to ask tough questions, either. If your child seems or says they feel hopeless, go ahead and ask them if they are having suicidal thoughts.

“The myth is that if we talk about suicide, we’ll make it worse,” says Brown. “The truth is if your child is thinking about it, it’s a relief and an opening to have someone ask about it.”

If you are worried about your child, Brown suggests sharing your observations with them. Lead with “I” statements. “Try ‘I feel worried because you seem withdrawn and stressed. How are you feeling?’” says Brown.

If your child shares that they’re anxious, depressed or even harming themselves, “Tell your child, ‘I’m so glad you told me. Lots of people struggle, and you’re not alone. There’s help available, and I’m going to find help for you,’” says Melman.

Then, let them know that it might take a while to find professional help or the right person or place, but that you’re there for them in the meantime, she adds.

“The truth is that it’s difficult to get care for child and adolescent mental health. Do all you can to prioritize getting help,” says Melman, who suggests starting with your own primary care physician.

“Finding mental health care for your child deserves the highest level of importance,” says Melman. “As stressful as that is for parents both emotionally and financially, it’s vital to prioritize getting this care for your child.”

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