One of the trickier parts of parenting is figuring out how to comfort your children when they are upset in different situations. Daniel and I are currently in the early toddler phase and James is frequently upset. He loves to see inside things and oftentimes he will struggle to “open” a toy or object that doesn’t open. He makes a frustrated sigh and brings it over to me or Daniel with a demand “Opi dat.” When we tell him that the fake can of beans from his kitchen set doesn’t open, he has a mini meltdown.
Luckily for him and us, he gets over things very quickly at this age, but there will come a day where a suggestion to read a book or blow bubbles won’t take his blues away. He’ll have his own life, his own relationships, and his own struggles, and I won’t be able to (and rightly shouldn’t) protect him or shield him from all the big, hard feelings that come with growing up. Learning to overcome the hard stuff (especially getting over failure) makes us stronger, wiser, and more resilient, after all.
I recently read an excellent article in The Atlantic, “What Happened to American Childhood?” which is all about anxiety and depression in children and how to help them. It turns out the rate of adolescent depression has been climbing over the past decade and nearly a third of children between the ages of 13 and 18 have some kind of anxiety disorder. And it’s clear that many of these children don’t simply “grow out of it,” but experience many bad outcomes later in life.
The cause for the increase in anxiety and depression among children is hard to pinpoint. There are likely many different factors that play a role. Some theories include children, especially girls, entering puberty earlier and earlier. The rise in parental opiate addiction has been linked to an increase in teen depression. And exposure to social media might make kids who are already depressed or anxious feel even worse. A commonly held belief among therapists is that when parents try too hard to protect their children from anxiety at younger ages, they become unable to tolerate it later on.
The best things a parent can do is promote good sleep, exercise, and friendships. Those three things are closely linked with psychological benefits. And of course, the most important thing is to try to avoid “deep trauma” in childhood.
One of the more basic solutions appears to be letting younger children experience normal levels of discomfort and anxiety. The author observes, “anxiety itself is not something to be warded off. It is a universal and necessary response to stress and uncertainty. I heard repeatedly from therapists and researchers while reporting this piece that anxiety is uncomfortable but, as with most discomfort, we can learn to tolerate it.”
For more serious disorders there are emerging therapies that are showing promise. One of the more interesting approaches is focusing the therapy on the parents to help teach them to be less accommodating to their children while still showing empathy. The child gradually gets better and better at coping with their problems.
The article concludes, “If we want to prepare our kids for difficult times, we should let them fail at things now, and allow them to encounter obstacles and to talk candidly about worrisome topics.” I already know that this will be a struggle for me. When I see James struggling to reach a toy or getting frustrated trying to maneuver himself onto the couch, my first instinct is to rush to help him. But I know it’s critical practice (for both of us) to let him figure out how to do things on his own. For not just his physical development, but his mental development too.