The world in which we’re raising our kids is very different from the one in which we grew up. Although this is true with each generation, there are two important over-and-above differences for this Gen Z population: personal technology, and the immense pressure to “be successful.” Note that in this context, societally-defined success for kids centers around grades, behavior, adult-created extra-curricular activities, pursuing a college track and college choice—all with an eye to future status and material wealth. And, because this is the societal definition, it often subconsciously becomes our parental definition. Many experts and studies have drawn a link between these changes and the escalating incidence of stress and anxiety in our Gen Z kids.
The Prevalence of Childhood Anxiety and Stress
Stressful events certainly happen at any age, including childhood, but the chronic stress that pervades youthful lives is highly concerning—for both mental well-being and physical health. A 2018 poll reported that over 45% of teenagers feel stressed “all the time.” Similarly, although occasional anxiety is a normal part of childhood, we’re talking here about anxiety disorder, where kids chronically experience nervousness, shyness, and fear, often avoiding places and activities due to their battle with the inner monster of anxiety. Anxiety disorder affects one in eight children. It’s important to note that both stress and anxiety can lead to depression.
Meanwhile, 95% of teens have access to a smartphone, and social media platforms like Snapchat and Instagram have experienced parallel explosive growth, with 70% of teenagers using social media more than once a day, and 45% saying they’re online on a near-constant basis. There are certainly benefits to personal technology devices (PTDs) and their apps, but a specter called digital stress has risen from these new technologies. We’re only just beginning to understand how PTDs and social media affect our kids. What we do know is that digital stress—which can lead to anxiety and depression— arises from technology addiction, cyberbullying and navigating over closeness in relationships that are inherent with PTD and social media use.
This new phenomenon of digital stress, added to societal and parental pressure to succeed, equals our unique and gifted Gen Z kids having a lot of heavy demands piled on their youthful plate. Among other outcomes, children experiencing anxiety and stress are at a higher risk to perform poorly in school, miss out on significant social experiences and engage in substance abuse.
When our kids are struggling, it can be hard to not take it personally. The parent-child bond is deep, and we want them to be well and happy. And sometimes we feel that their anxiety or stress is a reflection of our abilities as a parent. Powerful stuff. Here are four ways to focus your energy where it will make a difference:
- Dig deep on your expectations. Pay special attention to the small messages and demands that you make. Do they match your values? Are you parenting according to what you think is important, or what society thinks is important?
- Focus on what matters. Focus on their success as a human being, instead of as an achiever. Make sure their dreams and aspirations are truly theirs.
- Leave judgment at the door. Judgment creates barriers in communication and serves nothing.
- Recruit close friends for support. A child’s struggle can add stress to family life. You need support too. Your feelings are better discussed with an adult confidante than with your child.
How Parents Can Help Their Kids
There are five key approaches you can take to help your child with stress and anxiety—with avoiding it, or with navigating it:
- Pay attention to your child’s feelings. Does your child seem to feel more often worried, shy or anxious than other kids their age? Are they continually talking about how overwhelmed they feel? If so, it may be time for some heart-to-heart conversations.
- Provide unconditional support and understanding. Be okay with not being able to immediately fix the mental health challenges for your kid. Recognize that stress and/or anxiety is their journey to traverse, and give them unconditional support and understanding.
- Stay calm, caring, and centered when your child expresses stress or anxiety. This can be challenging, but your calm and presence will help to keep the situation from elevating. Try to keep a normal routine, but be flexible when needed.
- Help them learn how to say no and create healthy boundaries. Often, we’re still learning this as adults, so make it a team effort!
- Help your child build confidence and resilience. Sometimes we want to take over for our stressed or anxious child, in an innate act of protection. Instead, help them grow. For a child with anxiety, search for areas where your child can show they’re good at something that they like, give them some chores that help them feel like they’re contributing to home life, and praise your child for small accomplishments, facing challenges, trying something new or demonstrating brave behavior. For your child navigating chronic stress, help them set healthy boundaries, learn to say no and manage their time, and check how your own expectations may be affecting them.
Stress and anxiety are normal intermittent experiences for kids; they are not normal as chronic companions. In today’s environment, we can re-commit every day to helping our kids become the most content and healthy version of themselves that they’re able to be.