They’ve been a sitcom staple for decades: The child who has a test in school suddenly develops a stomachache, or a fever (holds the thermometer to the lightbulb), or creates a story about the teacher turning into a monster. Then there was the storyline when Opie had his lunch money stolen and learned how to stand up to bullies.
Ah, the good old days. When we could chuckle at those problems, knowing that in 20 minutes they’d be solved—every frown would be turned upside down.
But children today are beset by issues that stagger even mature adults. Coping with current events and societal pressures can be hard enough when you’ve got years of experience behind you. For someone whose prefrontal cortex—the part that helps us make rational, not emotional, decisions—is still developing, it can be overwhelming. And when you’re also still sorting out what makes you “you,” learning how to separate the outside world from the inside world, it can be downright frightening.
Being a kid now means the normal growing pains come with extra weight. An annual survey by Higher Education Research asks incoming college freshmen if they feel overwhelmed by all they have to do. In 2016, 41% said “yes”—compared with 28% in 2000.
Adding to today’s “culture of achievement” is the fact that this generation is growing up “wired.” (As one writer put it, “A day not wired is a day not lived” could be the motto of today’s adolescent.) They’re “digital natives,” bombarded hourly—if not more often—with images and information, factual or not, that their brains are literally not yet ready to process. Consider some of the recent events just this year in the United States involving adolescents: By July, 22 people had been shot on or near schoolgrounds. Parents have been charged with using bribery to get their kids into top colleges. Thousands of children have been separated from their families at the US border. Grade-school-aged children are committing suicide—in one Kentucky school district alone, a fifth-grader’s death was the eighth in that school season. Other students are committing murder in retaliation for bullying.
When you don’t feel safe in the world, when social media “likes” give way to attacks, when everything you’ve been taught to trust seems to betray you. Is it any wonder that, for some of today’s children and teens, the worries and fears normal for their age can deepen into anxiety, depression, even post-traumatic stress disorder? Here is
Obviously, it’s not unusual for children to feel sad and hopeless sometimes, no matter their age. A toddler may have separation anxiety, while the teenager revels in time away from parents but feels a snubbing from schoolmates very keenly. It’s when those worries persist or become extreme that the child may need help.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 7% of children aged 3 to 17 (approximately 4.4 million) have diagnosed anxiety, and 3% (approximately 1.9 million) have diagnosed depression.
Many have both: About 3 in 4 children with depression also have anxiety and almost 1 in 2 have behavior problems.
Those numbers have been on the rise: In the most recent year of the National Survey of Children’s Health, more than 65,000 parents were asked about problems with anxiety and/or depression (diagnosed by a doctor or other healthcare professional) in their children. The number of children aged 6 to 17 who have ever been diagnosed with anxiety or depression increased from 5.4% in 2003 to 8% in 2007 and 8.4% in 2011-12.
High school students today are twice as likely to see a mental health professional as teens in the 1980s