Anxiety for Children is on the Rise

Oftentimes, we are … We’re in a cultural moment where we’re discovering that anxiety for children is on the rise, and there has been a lot of conversation and a lot of study in the scientific, and psychological, and faith community about what is going on, why are kids struggling so much more with anxiety?

I wanted to talk a little bit about the parents’ role in that struggle, if you have a child that is struggling with this. I was really surprised by a study that came out recently and was described, and that I wanted to get your take on, Jeff. But this was from Yale psychology professor, Eli Lebowitz, and one of the things that he points out here is, instead of treating the children for anxiety, he treats the parents when the child is anxious.

So let me just read what some of this study said, “No longer treats children with anxiety. They treat the root cause, their parents. We now know that about 95% of parents of anxious children engage in,” what he calls, “accommodation. We also know that higher degrees of accommodation are associated with more severe anxiety symptoms, more severe impairment, worse treatment outcomes. These findings have potential implications, even for children who are not yet clinically anxious. The everyday efforts we make to prevent kids’ distress, minimizing things that worry or scare them, assisting with difficult tasks rather than letting them struggle, may not help them manage it in the longterm.”

A trend that has really grown a ton in parenting is this trend of accommodation, where, we call it things like helicopter parenting or snowplow parenting, where basically, it’s our job as parents to just clear out all the obstacles and make life as beautiful and idyllic for our children as we possibly can. Ironically, what studies are beginning to demonstrate is this increases anxiety among children. It makes them less resilient. We’re not helping our kids by stepping in every time they start to struggle, or by minimizing their struggle, or by accommodating their issues.

Now, this has never been a popular idea, this accommodation, obviously biblically, when it comes to parenting. The Bible is very in favor of training children and really shaping them. But because our culture no longer believes in those ideas, our culture really sees each child as a perfect snowflake who just needs to be sort of … who already comes fully packaged almost as perfection, and that almost we can … we can only screw them up, that creates this whole parenting style of accommodating kids, of not correcting children, not training children, not disciplining children, not letting children struggle through things in their own life, and this is not helping with anxiety.

So what’s ironic is, the psychology professionals are beginning to really zero in on the parenting style of the parents when the child is anxious. So, Jeff, what are your thoughts about that discovery?

Yeah, so many thoughts, and this one’s hard because you’ve got to be spirit led. This is, to me, the parents who push through in this well are the ones who are so sensitive to the Holy Spirit because he is the best teacher, he’s the ultimate psychologist, he’s the ultimate counselor. So leaning into every single moment and asking the Spirit, “Is this a push moment? Is this a pull moment?” You know what I mean? “Is this a sensitive moment? Is this a, I want to give them some grit moment?” There’s so many different ways to interpret that, so I would say, just be so sensitive to the Spirit, ask for help, lean on him. The Spirit is the best parent, more than we are.

And then, two, I try to read a lot of books every year, and it’s just fascinating to me, those ones that just, little things just stick so intensely with you, and Whole-Brain Child, a book I really love, that first chapter, first story has stuck with me for years. It literally is just this quick little story that the psychologist gives of a car crash, basically, and how our tendency as parents is to immediately, when you’re driving by a car crash, especially with toddlers, I mean, “Don’t look. That’s scary, and that’s bad.”

So we do this real quick clutching and grabbing, and, “Don’t look,” and aversion, when he basically just says, and through data, and research, and studies have shown, that’s the worst thing you can actually do. That creates this really snappy anxiousness in their heart. Exactly what we were talking about. He says the best thing is actually to talk about it in a calm … The best thing is for a parent to be a loving, calming, truthful, wise sage presence in that moment, not a policemen of, “Don’t look.” Does that make sense?

Right. Yes.

He even says, especially at a young age, that creates very different synapses and connections for your kids in their brain. Of course, there’s exceptions to that. Of course, there’s exceptions, where you want to avert and grab and pull. But I do think we are way too much on that side and never err on the side of, like, “Oh, yeah, that was pretty scary, huh? How does that make you feel? Man, should we pray for them right now? Let’s talk about this.” There’s so many ways to lean in that as a calm presence, and our kids mirror more than we think.

So, yes, there is some serious self … I’m always asking myself that as a parent, I’m like, “Man, did they just react that way because I react that way? Did they just say it in that tone because I say it in that tone? Did they just get all snappy because I, you know?”

So yeah, we’re actually very careful in our house, especially with quick, snap, emotional reactions, of, are we displaying that, or are we not displaying that? There’s a line there, too, because you never want to minimize, either. You don’t want to always be like, “Oh, nothing’s a big deal.” Oh, no, this is a really serious deal, but we can step into it as a calming, non-anxious presence that the Spirit teaches us to do. So I think all of that combined is practice and then Spirit help, and I think it makes a big difference.

You guys, I also feel like, addressing fathers specifically, usually most dads intuitively want to cause their child to struggle through things. This is part of the rough and tumble play, let him get over it. Like, we just had a moment in our family meeting an hour ago, where [Kyra 00:06:35] walked in with … she had banged her head and her face, and you could see she’d sort of face planted on a wall while she was …

I walked in, and everyone was talking about it, and told me the story, and I gave her a high five. April just started laughing, because April was like, “Oh, my gosh, are you okay?” And I’m like, “Awesome.”

Totally. Totally. Well, like, framing. It really comes down to framing.

Yes. It’s good for kids to have both, and I think what’s happened is the voice of the father, as being kind of the, “Hey, I’m going to celebrate more when you overcome difficulty,” that voice has just been minimized. Mothers can do that just as well, but oftentimes, what’s happening is that because there’s so little influence today of fathers on children, that they’re not experiencing that kind of tougher reaction to struggle or difficulty, or dads are pulling back from that. Dads are like, “Oh, I should become just more nurturing.”

Obviously, a lot of that is important, but man, not to the extent that you’re not challenging your kids to overcome things and just becoming that accommodating, constantly stepping-in kind of parent. So, as dads, I just want to encourage you guys to play your role. If your intuition is to let your kids struggle more, that could be one of those things from the Lord that’s built into the family design, that you don’t want to thwart.

Our culture has kind of gone to war against anything that’s sort of traditionally masculine as a bad, toxic thing, and I think that that can be part of why we are giving into so many of these accommodating parenting styles. It’s not helping our kids, and the research is coming in and demonstrating that.

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