We live in anxious times, and it's taking a serious toll on our kids. Nearly one in three teens and adults will suffer from serious anxiety, reported The New York Times Magazine in the course of a recent deep dive article into spiking rates of anxiety among young people.

Not only has anxiety surpassed depression as the most common mental health complaint among teens, but an incredible 62 percent of undergrads report feeling "overwhelming" anxiety in the previous year, the same article reports. Childhood anxiety is reaching epidemic proportions in America.

While experts are arguing over causes (is it our screens, our parenting techniques, our politics?), those with an anxious kid at home have a more immediate concern -- how should I handle a child who is too fearful to enjoy a playdate, order a slice of pizza, or get through a math quiz without distraction?

A recent Wall Street Journal article offers a pretty definitive answer: As tempting as it can be to protect your child out of love, don't indulge your kid's anxieties unless you want to make them worse.

Important caveats

This general advice, like all pop culture psychological commentary, comes with the usual (but important) warnings. Kids' struggles with anxieties obviously exist across a spectrum, and what's appropriate for a case of extreme shyness might be thoroughly unhelpful for full-blown generalized anxiety disorder. Getting professional advice beyond newspaper articles and blog posts is clearly a good idea.

It's also important to note that parents aren't to blame for their kids' anxieties. Researchers believe "that parenting itself is just one of the many factors that contribute to anxiety. In a 2007 review of the scientific literature on the subject, published in Clinical Psychology Review, researchers found that parenting, on average, explained only about 4 percent of the variation in anxiety issues among children," notes the WSJ article. 

Make your kids face their fears (gently)

But while parenting isn't generally the cause of childhood anxiety (with the possible exception of extreme overcontrol of kids), it can make it worse. Accommodating your child's worries once they appear by ordering for her in restaurants or following her around a classmate's birthday party will backfire badly, warns the WSJ's Andrea Petersen.

"Giving anxious kids an out sends the message that these ordinary situations really are dangerous and that the child can't cope. Though the immediate upset may recede, the result can be an even more anxious child -- and overwhelmed and stressed-out parents," she writes.

Instead, the psychological consensus is that it is best to acknowledge your child's fears but then to gently push him to face them while expressing confidence that he can do it. In more extreme cases, that might mean gradual progress toward ordering that pizza -- first making your kid make eye contact with the waiter, then asking her to point to her preferred pie, then actually doing the ordering herself. But parents should default to not letting their kids run from their anxieties, even if that means more tears (and guilt) in the short term. 

If you have a seriously anxious child, the Times and WSJ article are worth a read in full for a more in-depth understanding of the science, but the takeaway of both is clear for those facing more garden-variety youthful anxiety: Be kind but be firm and nudge your kids to face their fears.

They may grumble now, but one day they'll thank you.

Published on: Dec 12, 2017
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