It’s a challenging time to be a child with the increase in academic stress; unduly excessive focus on studies to the exclusion of physical activities and hobbies; loss of the buffer provided by joint families; and parents working long hours. It has made their lives more complex, leading to higher rates of anxiety and depression, and rapidly increasing rates of suicide. Children learn coping skills to deal with the ups and downs of life from others around them. So, if the adults in their life are preoccupied or too busy to spend quality time with them, and they do not have hobbies or friends to act as stress busters, their problems can overwhelm them and appear too big to deal with. For example, a child being bullied in school would cope better if there was a positive role model to show him/her things from a different perspective, or if a parent could make more time to listen and be empathetic.
An important factor contributing towards anxiety and depression in children is that unlike earlier times when children were not given everything on a platter, nowadays many parents make the mistake of always saying “yes”, thereby giving rise to a gradual sense of entitlement. When children are used to always getting their way, they expect the same from others and this often leads to a sense of disappointment and resentment when things do not go their way. Aspects such as increasing competition, consumerism, dysfunctional relationships and maladaptive ways of thinking also add to the problem.
Another commonly seen element is “Helicopter” parenting, where parents hover over their children, always on the alert and ready to swoop in at the first sign of trouble or disappointment. This can result in issues when children get older and try to make it on their own because they have not been taught the skills to function independently, and their poor emotional functioning and decision making is a cause for triggering off anxiety and depression.
In addition, the fact that depression and anxiety are not recognised as illnesses, and are considered taboo subjects in society contributes hugely to this problem, wherein 50-60 % of adolescents who commit suicide may have been suffering from clinical depression, but did not seek professional help for it. People run to a doctor when they have fever, pain, etc. yet they do not consider a change in mood, sleep pattern or thought process a reason to see one. There is a need to understand that a change in mood that persists for 2 weeks or more is similar to a change in body temperature. In fact, there are Apps being developed that may soon be available, which can detect signs of depression early by recognising changes in mood, tone of voice, activity, sleep, etc.
Some factors that can help in supporting and addressing this issue are:
- Having a strong social support network in the form of friends and relatives in a safe environment where one can get varied opinions and express one’s own opinions.
- Identifying maladaptive thoughts and building positive thinking. Many teens may have maladaptive ways of thinking, i.e. through magnifying the problem or putting a label on themselves. For example, thinking one is “stupid” if one does badly in a situation. In therapy, they are taught to change the way they think by asking themselves –“Am I focusing only on the negatives?”, “What is another way of looking at this?” or “What would they say to someone else in a similar situation?”
- Parents can help by listening to even small issues in a non-judgemental way and teach children to reflect instead of providing readymade solutions. For example, instead of saying, “I will talk to your teacher”, they can ask “What else could you do in the situation?” or “What if you try this…?” Cultivate the habit in your child to calm down if they are upset and discuss things after they are calmer. In addition, parents should avoid transmitting their own anxiety onto their children as they are the first teachers and role models and their responses are reflected in their children’s responses. However, there are children who suffer from anxiety despite having supportive parents. They should be encouraged to discuss their anxiety issues, write down the fears and develop ways of dealing with each fear.
- School and College counselors can help students to make a ‘calm down plan’ and develop coping statements by encouraging positive self-talk and positive affirmations. For example, “I’m worth it, no matter what,” “Keep working on it, that’s the main thing,” “Nothing is that serious. It’s not the end of the world,” “Go slow and keep trying”, etc. They can discuss Life Skills, such as how to deal with peer pressure or peer rejection, bad relationships, etc. and ask the students to write their thoughts on such issues and engage in a discussion.
- Identifying Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, learning disabilities, anxiety, etc. in time, as well as doing visualisation exercises helps in nipping the problem in the bud.
- Parents can ensure that children have time for outdoor play and are encouraged to have hobbies from an early age. Internet and telephone times should be discussed in advance and implemented. Setting boundaries helps children to set limits and follow rules when they grow up.
It is important to understand that despite all these measures, 3 out of 10 adolescents may face anxiety or depression, and just like we don’t wait till an infection gets worse, we should not wait till depression worsens. Therapy and medication take around 1-2 months to start having an effect. Identifying anxiety and depression, and getting help in time can be crucial because as they say, “A stitch in time saves nine.” Only here, it could be lifesaving.
Picture credit: Noorulabdeen Ahmad on Unsplash