“Mommy, I wish I was never born,” my 4-year-old said to me last week. Crushed, I tried to keep from grimacing as I asked him why. “Because then, I would never die,” he replied.
My son often blurts out these types of thoughtful yet pessimistic musings. On Friday, I offered to take him to see his first movie at the cinema, and his initial reaction was concern that it might be too loud. Before a hike last weekend, he warned my husband and me that we’d better not forget to check everyone for ticks afterward. He’s a delightful kid who loves to let loose and have fun, but he sure knows how to worry.
Apparently my son isn’t alone. Over the past few months, I’ve stumbled across a handful of articles and blog posts claiming that there is an epidemic of anxiety among youth today. Kids are stressed and worried about oh so many things, I’ve read, because they are over-tested, under-recessed, helicopter-parented, and spending too much time online. It seems 2016 is giving every American kid an anxiety disorder.
Or is it? I dug into the research on childhood anxiety to find out. And although anxiety disorders are the most common mental illnesses among youth today, there’s little evidence to suggest that they’re becoming more widespread. But it’s possible, psychologists say, that more children and teens are now experiencing the type of mild–to-moderate anxiety that my son has, even if that anxiety doesn’t qualify as a diagnosable disorder. The good news for those of us who are worried that our kids are over-worrying: Research suggests there are strategies parents can use to recognize, ease, and perhaps even prevent anxiety among their kids.
Fears are, of course, a normal part of childhood. It’s natural for kids to be afraid of the dark, of spiders, of needle-wielding nurses. They might also worry about fitting in and making friends. And as anyone who’s ever dropped off an 18-month-old at day care knows, toddlers often panic when separated from their parents. But some kids have more trouble handling their fears than others, and those who struggle may range from being mildly anxious to having anxiety so extreme that it disrupts their daily lives—what might be considered an anxiety disorder. (If your child’s anxiety is very problematic, you might want to consult a psychologist, social worker, or psychiatrist, who can evaluate your child and, if necessary, suggest evidence-based interventions such as cognitive-behavioral therapy. Getting help for serious anxiety is important, because anxiety has been linked to academic problems, loneliness, depression, and future substance abuse.)
Researchers don’t know why mild-to-moderate childhood anxiety might be more common than it used to be, but lifestyle changes could be playing a role. “There are fewer filters that buffer the impact of negative events than there used to be—there’s social media and 24 hour news coverage, so we’re clued into everything happening outside,” explains Catherine Mogil, a psychologist with the UCLA Center for Child Anxiety, Resilience, Education, and Support. In the past, she says, “the information would have been tempered by a helpful caring adult.” Yet it’s not always easy to identify anxiety in kids, in part because they often don’t label their fearful feelings. A toddler may communicate his anxiety through excessive clinginess; an anxious 5-year-old may complain of frequent headaches or stomachaches; a teen may withdraw and spend more time in her room. Complicating matters, there are several types of anxiety (social anxiety, generalized anxiety, PTSD, OCD, phobia disorders, and panic disorders) and they manifest themselves differently.
Still, some common signs can be noticeable. In general, anxiety colors how a person interprets and reacts to his environment, in that anxious people tend to assume the worst. Whereas my husband thinks mountain biking is thrilling, I see it as an opportunity for serious injury. You can sometimes glean that a child is anxious simply by listening for these same kinds of negative thoughts. When researchers told 5-year-olds the beginning of a story, for a study published in 2000, and asked them to end it, the kids who created unhappy endings were more likely to show signs of anxiety a year later. Research has shown that kids with anxiety are also more likely than other kids to interpret potentially neutral pictures, words, and stories as being threatening. Other traits that have been linked to anxiety in kids are shyness and timidity. One study found that 20 percent of babies and young toddlers who were excessively shy or timid developed multiple anxiety disorders later in childhood, compared with none of the uninhibited kids they tracked.
This doesn’t mean that you should panic if your kid is shy or a Negative Nellie. Anxiety in kids isn’t fixed, and parents can do a lot to ease and even prevent it. That’s because parents are often unknowingly promoting or reinforcing the problem. More than 80 percent of kids with anxiety have parents with anxiety, in part because there’s a genetic component. (Some research has homed in on a gene that codes for a transporter of the brain chemical serotonin.) But there is also the simple fact that anxious kids learn by watching and listening to the ways their parents interpret and interact with the world around them. If a parent avoids certain situations out of fear, constantly spouts warnings, or interacts with her kid in an overprotective way, she increases the risk that her child becomes anxious, too. I’m not saying that if your kid is anxious, it’s your fault (hi Mom!)—rather, I’m saying that you may be able to help your child a lot simply by tweaking your own behavior.
Research suggests that even very young children can develop fears simply by observing their parents. In a 2006 study, researchers in the U.K. taught the mothers of 1- to 2-year-olds to realistically feign anxious reactions while meeting a male stranger. Other moms calmly met the same men. Later, the researchers introduced all the toddlers to the stranger and found that the children were much more likely to exhibit fear and avoid that stranger if they had seen their moms behave anxiously around them. And when mothers faked a fearful reaction to rubber snakes and spiders in the presence of their 15- to 20-month-olds in a 2002 experiment, the toddlers exhibited more fear around these objects later on.
These types of learned fears have been elicited in animals, too. In a series of experiments in the late 1980s, researchers at Northwestern University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison showed that young lab-raised rhesus monkeys who were initially unafraid of toy snakes and crocodiles immediately began to fear the toy reptiles after watching videos of other rhesus monkeys reacting anxiously to them. The fear persisted when the lab monkeys saw the same reptiles three months later. Collectively, these findings suggest that if you’re scared of something like spiders but don’t want your child to fear them as well, you might want to mask your terror the next time one crawls past you.
Kids may also be less likely to fear something if they have seen or heard neutral things about it before, observed other people having neutral experiences with it, or had at least one initial positive experience with it themselves. For instance, kids who have had neutral experiences with dogs are less likely to develop a dog phobia after having a bad encounter with a canine. And when those rhesus monkeys I described earlier saw peers not reacting anxiously to snakes, and then later saw other rhesus monkeys reacting fearfully, the monkeys were much less likely to become fearful. These findings suggest that it can be helpful to prime your child to believe that potentially scary things aren’t always scary. (I’m pretty sure many a Daniel Tiger episode is designed with this goal in mind.) And if you can engineer your kid’s very first experience with something so that it’s positive, he may be less likely to fear that thing in the future, even if later experiences with it aren’t as good. Research has shown that kids who enjoy their first visit to the dentist are less likely to develop dental anxiety compared with kids who have a scary experience the first time. Now I know why our dentist stocks chocolate-flavored toothpaste; my son literally can’t wait to go back, and that makes me less anxious, too.
Back to this idea about masking your own fears: I’m not saying that you should pretend that you’re not afraid of anything. It can be useful for parents to share their fears with their kids if they also discuss how they cope with them. Tell little Lucas that sometimes you get scared about flying in airplanes, but that you’ve learned you can make yourself feel better by taking a few deep breaths and reminding yourself that airplane crashes are exceptionally rare. Even better, ask Lucas what he suggests that you might do to ease your worries. Taking this approach may help him to figure out how to ease his own anxieties. The book Helping Your Anxious Child, penned by a group of Australian researchers and clinicians who study and treat child anxiety, explains that “it is really important that you don’t try and hide your fears from your child or pretend that you never get scared. All this does is show your child that it is embarrassing or ‘weird’ to be scared. Instead, you need to see managing your fears and worries as a shared activity—something you and you child can work on together.”
Likewise, it’s never a good idea to dismiss your child’s fears, even if they seem silly to you. “You never want to say, ‘Don’t worry, there’s nothing to be afraid of,’ when for the child, the world might look a little scary,” Mogil says. “You don’t want to invalidate it and make children think they’re crazy.” Instead, you want to acknowledge their anxiety and, together, come up with ideas for overcoming it. (Helping Your Anxious Child outlines a number of strategies you can use, such as teaching kids how to interpret situations realistically and avoid errors in thinking, and exposing them incrementally to fears so that they get over them.)
Another thing parents can do to prevent and ease anxiety in their kids is to try not to be overbearing—admittedly, a tough thing to do if you’re at all anxious yourself. Let’s say that you constantly spot your child as she climbs the ladder at the playground, or you tell her to be “be careful” every time she climbs out of the bathtub, even if she is capable of doing these things relatively safely. (These examples did not pop into my head at all because I do them myself.) This kind of negative intervening or catastrophizing, as it’s sometimes called, can have a bunch of potentially bad effects. First, it sends a message that little Eva isn’t capable of doing these feats herself, an idea that diminishes her self-confidence and could make her feel helpless. (Feelings of helplessness have been linked to anxiety.) It also sends a message that climbing a ladder or getting out of the bathtub is inherently dangerous and something she should fear—and as I already mentioned, anxiety stems in part from a tendency to interpret potentially neutral situations as threatening. You don’t really want to plant more of those seeds in your kid’s head than you have to.
Finally, parental over-involvement may not give your kid the chance to problem-solve on her own and develop the skills she needs to overcome new challenges. Research suggests that allowing kids to feel in control of their environment—giving them the chance to say hey, I got this! when they’re climbing or doing a puzzle or reading aloud—is important for building confidence and preventing anxiety. If you’re constantly stepping in to help or protect, you’re saying the exact opposite: No, honey, you clearly don’t got this. One study found that toddlers who were shy and timid at age 2 were much more likely to remain socially anxious at age 4 if their moms tended to be intrusive.
Interestingly, though, the causal arrow here can also go the other direction. While being an overbearing parent might make your kid more anxious, you’re also more likely to be overbearing if you’re around an anxious kid. In a 2009 study, researchers in Australia recruited 91 kids from ages 7 to 14 and their mothers for an experiment. Half of the kids suffered from anxiety, while the other half did not. They paired each child with a mother—never the child’s actual mother—and put the two in a room together. The researchers asked each child to prepare a short speech and asked the paired mother to support him or her and, if necessary, provide help. They did this experiment several times, giving every mother the chance to sit with an anxious and a non-anxious child.
The researchers found that the mothers were much more involved and intrusive when the kids they were paired with were anxious, whereas the moms were less overbearing with non-anxious kids. They also found that the mothers of anxious kids were no more or less involved, in general, than the mothers of non-anxious kids. The findings suggest that “an anxious child may elicit increased involvement and help from their environment,” the authors wrote, which might then make her less confident and more likely to avoid similar situations in the future. In other words, anxious kids also cause adults to interact with them in ways that confirm their vulnerability and make them even more anxious. So if you’ve got an anxious kid, try your damnedest to push against your desire to intervene (except, of course, when she really does need help).
Ultimately, to help my son overcome anxiety, I know that I need to empower him to see and interpret the world realistically. I also need to give him the chance to build the confidence he needs to tackle life’s challenges by himself. This doesn’t mean that he will never need help or support; of course he will. But I will stop providing it for the wrong reasons—because I am anxious or in a hurry or don’t believe he can really do it. The more I can model strength and optimism, and the more I can trust in his abilities, the better off I know he will be. But I have to recognize my own limitations, too. I am most definitely not going to be the parent who teaches him how to drive.