When I first dove into the realm of private practice about nine years ago, a majority of the referral reasons for the children and adolescents that I worked with included oppositional behaviors, attention problems, and difficulty adjusting to separation or divorce. Slowly over the past few years, I began to notice that a majority of my patient population is diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. I would say that around 75% of parent phone calls or emails are about whether therapy can assist their child or adolescent with the stress or anxiety that they are experiencing.
What has caused this increase in childhood anxiety? Are we just a more anxious society? Is it our obsession with social media? Is it overscheduling or academic pressure? In all likelihood, it is most likely to be a combination of these factors plus several others that has led to an increase in anxiety at a younger age. When I first studied psychology, I remember learning that 10-20% of children are born with a temperament that can be characterized as highly reactive and “slow to warm up.” There is also a genetic component to anxiety. Certain individuals may be more vulnerable to anxiety in situations due to their genetic makeup. School is more competitive, children spend less time outdoors, but at the same time they are overscheduled with activities. Children do not spend enough time being “bored.” Instead they are shuttled from one organized activity to another, squeezing in tutoring, homework, and social media and going to bed later and later. Parents want their child to be academically successful, social, happy, and emotionally intelligent all the time. It is impossible to always experience these things. This pressure to experience this all the time leads to the child being burned out and overwhelmed.
In the past, children were able to cope with their stressors with down time, playing outdoors or utilizing creativity when bored. Down time allows children time to process the new experiences they have in life instead of just shuffling off to the next item on the schedule.
I often encounter parents who do not feel that they pressure their anxious child. But I often notice mixed messages like “It is ok if you do not want to go to the party” but then at the same time they are worried that their child does not have enough friends. Parental guidance in therapy is important when working with children and adolescents. Parents do not want their child to fail or experience negative emotions, as it is very painful to sit by and watch your child hurting and not try to prevent it or make it go away. But in order for a child or teen to develop self-confidence and reduce anxiety or believing that they are not capable of resolving a problem on their own, they must experience these negative feelings and events and process them. In CBT, this is achieved by teaching the parent to focus on physical activity and outdoor play for their child, reducing helicopter parenting by allowing their child to be adventurous and safe, providing a gentle push towards facing fears head on, and finally trusting our child to navigate these situations on their own as they develop and show us how resilient they truly are. When we swoop in as parents to solve social or academic situations, for example, we are telling our child that they are not capable to figure this out on their own. Therapy can assist the parent in stepping back and allowing their child or teenager to figure out these situations and learn from them. Yes, they may fail, but then this is the perfect opportunity to allow them to process it and discuss their strategy and ask them what they would do differently instead of providing them with all of the answers. This technique allows for the development of confidence, independence, and resilience. Through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), at Dr. Angela Reiter & Associates, your child or adolescent can learn to develop a strong sense of self-efficacy and reduce overwhelming anxiety. If your child or teenager is experiencing anxiety in Westchester County please contact us today!