On a beautiful day like today, what better pass time for those of us who are at home, than to take yourself out for a nice walk, a breath of fresh air and take in the scenery. Put the pep back into your step on this fresh spring morning! Well that is exactly what I was thinking when I took myself out along the River Walk in the local area. One thing that struck me during this walk, was the amount of teenagers and children who were out and about, taking in this scenic view, and so as I walked I began reflecting on current concerns regarding stress amongst our children and young adults.
Childhood anxiety is often demonstrated through behaviours which are not deemed “normal” to that child. A child who is depressed, anxious, or feeling down and uncertain, will show signs of withdrawal, sometimes aggression, and very often they will stop engaging with interests which until then they have been excited about.
As a Psychologist, of late I have noticed a steep incline in the current focus of this “hot topic”. However, and I know some of you won’t agree, as adults should we ask the question, are we to blame, have we planted this seed?
Currently we see children of all ages returning to school. Disruption in our lives has resulted in a significant impact on our wellbeing and mental health. Young children don’t have the coping mechanisms to adapt to these changes, leading to symptoms of anxiety. As Parents it is important to be aware of changing behaviours, signs of depression [a strong word], which I don’t particularly like applying to children, but one which is cropping up regularly on social media as we move deeper into the midst of this pandemic, and try to recover some normality to venture out the other side.
I say “strong word” because there have been times when, during a consultation, I have asked myself, just how anxious is this child, or could this behaviour be a reflection of what the child observes at home. Throughout my day, I meet Students and young parents, who share their stresses with me as though the changing world impacts only on them and their lives. I don’t say this to be judgemental, as I mentioned above, everyone displays aspects of stress in different ways, we cannot help how we react, nor have we any idea how we will react until we are placed in that very situation. It is the natural instinct to protect oneself from danger, and our bodies go into “fight or flight mode” to help us cope with whatever has happened. In times of acute stress the body releases hormones, triggering “fight or flight” response. However it is important to note that children who display particular behaviours when in their parents company, and don’t display it when alone or with friends, are not really anxious, they are portraying the anxieties which are being reflected onto them by the adults they encounter on a daily basis, who are normally their parents.
As I continued on this scenic venture, taking in the air and the views, laughter and singing rang out around me, birds sang, the lapping waters brought about a certain tranquility and as the wind whispered through my hair, I continued to reflect on why so many parents contact me concerned for their children’s mental health. These children and young people in front of me didn’t seem stressed, [depressed], anxious about the pandemic, about their future; in fact, I could safely wager that the pandemic wasn’t even given consideration, as they strolled huddled together with eyes shining in excitement, singing, laughing, shouting, enjoying themselves… So I ask – what is happening, why has this become such a “hot topic” children and teenage anxieties….Children who cannot cope..
For the child, witnessing the parent in a state of anxiety causes more than just a few moments of upset and concern. The impact of fear and uncertainty for that child can have a lasting effect, and the child learns to behave a particular way when they are in that persons company. They are constantly on guard, waiting for another outburst, for more tears, causing confusion and worry for the child, as they don’t always understand what is behind the change in behaviour or mood.
Remember that children learn what they observe (Bandura, 1971); we are their role models, they look to us for cues and signals to help them gain understanding and clarity in ambiguous situations. Children learn from example, so watching a parent display frequent bouts of anxiety, fear or anger results in the child determining, that when with this adult, certain situation are unsafe, they need to be on their guard, mindful of what might happen next, resulting in displays of stress, changes in behaviour and sometimes withdrawal, simulating anxiety and [depression].
Evidence tells us that children of anxious parents are more likely to display anxiety themselves, resulting from combinations of learned behaviour (Bandura, 1971), and in some instances genetic factors which are essentially in all of our makeups (Burstein, 2011; Platt, 2017).
What to do?
Learn Stress Management Techniques
Learning techniques to help you cope with anxiety will not only help with your own mental health, but as you develop strategies to tolerate stress you are also teaching your child; helping build resilience in times of uncertainty or doubt. This is something I regularly encounter, finding it is the adult who needs the support, so it becomes a simultaneous process, providing tools for managing parental anxieties, so they in turn can scaffold the child’s ability to develop stress tolerance techniques and manage these different situations more effectively.
It is important to remember to share strategies you learn with your child. An Adult that models rational behaviour will scaffold the environment so the child can do the same. Be careful with your manner, choose your words wisely, be aware of your facial expressions, and remember body language is also important as these are all cues that children and young adults pick up on. Children relate the person with the reaction and the situation, so try to make the connection a positive one for your child. Children who don’t display stress when out of our company, are drawing from your cues, reacting to what they are observing, modelling your behaviour (Bandura, 1971).