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Anxious Parents Anxious Children - Changing the Paradigm

Updated: Apr 12

Anxiety disorders have increased dramatically in recent decades in people of all ages. Why? Some say it is technology, the internet, smartphones, and the overuse of screens.


anxious teenager looking sad while other friend tries to console her.

 

Some fault the economy, climate change, COVID, polarization of politics, globalism, terrorism, crime, or 24-hour news. The list goes on and on.  However, all that said, advances in technology, medicine, science, education, and human rights have promoted the most well-educated, prolific, and advanced cohort in human history.  So, maybe the reason is more subtle? 


One possibility is the dramatic cultural shift in the parent/child hierarchy of the family. 


In the 50s, and perhaps well into the 70s and 80s, the standard parent/child hierarchy of the family system went something like this. The parents were the "centerpiece" of the family unit and held all the authority.  The children were "satellites," revolving around the order and priorities of the adults. Even when both parents worked outside of the home, there were no apologies for less time spent with the children; rather, those kids usually had more responsibilities and were relied upon to help their parents and siblings manage life at home. 


In those days, children seemed to have more downtime and were not so oversubscribed.  Childhood was more about unstructured play, roaming the neighborhood, and getting to school, practice, or a friend's house on their own. Kids walked and rode their bikes and spent considerable time outside. There were no cell phones or GPS, so parents and kids got very used to being out of touch with each other for long stretches of time, on a daily basis. Through lived experience, both parents and children learned to trust themselves and each other; kids learned to rely on themselves, make age-appropriate decisions, problem-solve, manage conflict with their friends, and create their own fun.  They were not watching TV or playing video games for entertainment, nor were they under constant adult supervision. Generally speaking, adults manned the adult hierarchy, mostly unchallenged by their minor children, and children remained in the child hierarchy, respecting the boundaries and authority of adults, both at home and school. 


Today, the family hierarchy is inverted. Children are the "centerpiece" of the family unit, and parents are the satellites.  Around the clock, parents are in service to their children's endless needs and advancement. Order, priorities, and much of the authority in the family are shared with the minor members of the household. Most things are negotiable. “No” means “maybe” much of the time. 


In addition, children have never been so over-subscribed. Most families start their day well before 6 am, and children are scheduled from morning until night with school, lessons, play dates, practices, games, clubs, and enrichment activities. Most "play" is structured and supervised. Schools provide after-hours programs for children of working parents. Adults are always watching and waiting to mediate every argument and solve every problem. When an adult isn't available, children are tracked in real-time by their smartwatches, smartphones, or apps like Life 360. Kids track parents. Parents track kids. Nothing is left to chance. Sadly, trust and a deep sense of safety aren't found in the data we collect in real-time; it is developed over a lifetime of trial and error and lived experience. 


With the abundance of information, care, planning, and oversight, why the growing levels of anxiety? We are all buckled in, vacuum packed, safety sealed, and password protected. Yet, parents and children are uneasy.  Are people truly more vulnerable and less street-smart than in generations past? Instead of feeling more comfortable, confident, and relaxed, people of all ages report feeling more nervous, hypervigilant, exhausted, and more anxious than ever before. 


Perfectionism and OCD are skyrocketing. Delayed gratification, conflict resolution, and self-regulation are being taught to children rather than developing naturally. Sixteen-year-olds don't seem to be eager to drive, preferring parents or an Uber to get them to the day's plethora of lessons and activities. Adulting therapy is a growing industry as more and more young adults remain living with their parents well into their 20s.


anxious, sad little boy looking out as homework piles up on his desk

Today, children are more demonstrative and directive within the family system, with a strong foothold in the adult hierarchy. However, unlike their parents, they are not particularly in service to the family or responsible for the decisions they influence. This causes stress, high conflict, and a breakdown of the family system. Fear and anxiety go up as the adult hierarchy gets very crowded with both parents and children. 


It is a simple idea, but perhaps it takes a whole lot of time, experience, and maturity to be the "centerpiece" of a family. Maybe children are not developmentally ready for the burdens that come with being a decision-maker and influencer. Perhaps it is a very necessary part of childhood development to be a "satellite," slowly growing with age and experience in preparation for the challenges of caring and being responsible for those we love.

 

Children who remain in the child hierarchy, absent the burdens of authority and responsibility, have the time and opportunity to "practice" being independent, make tons of age-appropriate decisions, and learn from their mistakes as well as their successes. Most importantly, they learn delayed gratification, build agency, develop internal motivation, determination, and grit. These are things parents can't give their children. These are learned through experience, trial and error, and effort. Kids need to demonstrate responsible behavior and be rewarded; they need to earn their stripes before wearing them. Of course, they can't learn any of these things if parents are unwilling to remove the bubble wrap that protects them from the possibility of disappointment, mistakes, or despair. There is nothing more difficult or as loving as parents willing to tolerate their own fears to allow their child to grow. Training wheels are meant to be temporary and used only as needed. The goal is to take them off. Preparation, practice, and experience, regardless of the era, have always worked out very well.


Science teaches us that the prefrontal cortex of the human brain is not fully developed until the early 20s. Adolescence is uniquely designed to last about 10+ years while the body and brain are preparing for adulthood.  Family life will never function as it did generations ago, nor should that be the goal, given today's culture of technology and global influences. But history does provide a few good clues about what to retain from the past when progress takes us so quickly into the future.  


Albert Einstein said, "Information is not knowledge. The only source of knowledge is experience. You need experience to gain wisdom." 


Perhaps we adults shouldn't bubble wrap our children and prevent them from getting a few skinned knees. Perhaps there should be less tracking and more opportunities to develop, practice independence, and earn trust. Perhaps children need more responsibility at home, in service to the family and the greater good. Perhaps parents and children need to calm down, take their time, and spend more of it together.  


To be the "centerpiece" of the family, you need wisdom. Wisdom is won through experience. Experience takes time and a willingness to accept challenges as a normal part of life. The antidote to anxiety is found in the here and now.  


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1 comentario


Invitado
14 mar

Great report. All very true.

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