Age of anxiety: children feel the strain
What can parents do to relieve, rather than exacerbate, stress for children?
As a society, we have become so anxious about raising children – from attempting to safety-proof every conceivable scenario to fretting about maximising their potential – that they can’t but absorb that parental anxiety. Photograph: Thinkstock
Shahed Warreth of Maryfield College, Drumcondra, Dublin 9: is anxious that she will have a blank in an exam.
Teenagers sitting the State exams next month will tell you a thing or two about stress. But for the majority of them, this is a temporary phase. It is the ones who have been stressed about academic challenges, as well as other things in life, for years that we really need to worry about.
While bouts of stress can be motivating, very prolonged episodes are debilitating.
Child and adolescent psychotherapist Colman Noctor, who works at St Patrick’s Mental Health Services in Dublin, says that, in his experience, anxiety issues in children are definitely on the increase. Stress and anxiety are among the most dominant features of all conditions in child psychiatry, he says.
Internal factors, such as temperament, family legacies and vulnerability to stress, and/or external pressures, such as upsetting life events (for example, the death of a close relative, parental separation or moving house), “pushy parents” and unrealistic expectations of achievement may be at play.
There is definitely a “social construction” to the apparent rise in the number of children with stress problems, he says.
As a society, we have become so anxious about raising children – from attempting to safety-proof every conceivable scenario to fretting about maximising their potential – that they can’t but absorb that parental anxiety.
“A thing we are seeing a lot more of recently is perfectionism,” says Noctor. He works with young people who are putting themselves under immense pressure, for example, to get straight As in the Junior Cert. “We are in a society where we are validated very much by achievement,” he says. “Stress is created by the fear of the unknown or the pressure to succeed, perform or keep up.”
He believes the evolution of social media, which people use to present the impression of themselves that they want others to see, contributes to the pressure on both parents and children. “In life we can now edit, cut, paste and perfect everything about ourselves.” This is no longer the preserve of celebrities and their airbrushed images.
“Now we can all be celebrities. There is a fantasy that perfectionism is possible. I think young people who are vulnerable buy into that.”
There’s a lot of evidence to suggest our children are less resilient than previous generations, says youth and media consultant Sheena Horgan.
“We cosset and manage them more with organised play and a full schedule of activities, so it follows that they’re going to be less able to cope with the stresses that life throws at them.”
Childhood is about trying to understand your place in the world and the world our children are growing up in is constantly giving out messages of its expectation of them, says Horgan, author of Candy-Coated Marketing, and producer and presenter of the radio documentary Is Childhood Shrinking? which was broadcast on Newstalk recently.
“The images and messages of ideals and perfection set expectations among kids – and adults – that are simply unattainable, but while we may know that, as adults, children don’t have enough life experience to know that.”
We really should give children the life skills they need to interpret critically and challenge the messaging they consume, she adds.
Play therapist Sarah Rush says there may be a genetic component to a child’s stress but it may also be that life is just very busy. Mum and Dad might both be working; there could be a lot of after-school group activities; there may be pressure to achieve; and not much resting time, not much play time.”
If the mother of a child also appears to suffer from anxiety, which would suggest the possibility of a hereditary condition, Rush is mindful that the child may need to be referred to the child and adolescent mental health services.
“I’m clear about what I can and can’t do,” says Rush, whose therapy harnesses the power of play to allow children to express, explore and make sense of what is going on in their lives, for which they do not yet have the language to articulate.
Parents need to recognise and work with their child’s personality and temperament, rather than thinking that because Mary up the road does ballet, camogie, Brownies and drama classes, their daughter needs to do the same. For some children, coping with school and one other activity might be enough. “That might just be the little person that they are,” says Rush. You may be a parent who operates quite differently, but it’s important to realise that your child may get strength from spending time on their own, doing aimless activity and just being allowed to be.
Rush, who works at the Connolly Counselling Centre in Dublin, is conscious that her advice about how to support a stressed child is “often a very big ask for a very, very busy family”. It can boil down to common sense and something quite basic; your child wants to spend more time with you.
“Your child doesn’t want you to be hurried, doesn’t want you to be stressed, and just wants you to hang out with them.”
Quite often, anxiety in children comes from parental stress, yet parents, especially if they don’t recognise it in themselves, don’t always make the link, says Sheila O’Malley of Practical Parenting, who also runs wellbeing workshops within companies.
“I am dealing with parents who are working too hard. When you’re working too hard, you’re stressed and you are not coming in at your best. You are a bit tetchy, a bit irritable, cranky.”
Becoming conscious of your own stress is the first step towards doing something about it, she points out. Sometimes, the starting point is as simple as taking a few deep breaths to slow down and avert a row.
It is difficult for working parents to manage that transition from corporate buzz to family time the moment you walk in your front door. Within minutes of your return home, there may be temper and tears, from you as well as the children.
“Lovebomb them when you go in the door – even if it is the last thing you feel like doing,” is O’Malley’s advice. Forget about putting on the dinner for a few minutes, give your child your full attention and metaphorically draw breath.
Then they can toddle off to bed later feeling loved up, rather than keep looking for something they never got during the day, she explains.
“It builds security, and anxiety is a lack of security,” O’Malley adds. “In other words, how do you spell love? T.I.M.E.”
Noctor’s advice for parents centres on values, and whether a child “can value things other than achievement and validation through results. If a parent values effort, not outcome, that is a great way to start.”
Take the approach of, “If you put in enough effort, whatever happens I will be happy with it.” If you build resilience and robustness in a child, he adds, that will make them more able to cope with and withstand the pressures of the world today.
St Patrick’s Mental Health Services runs a support line, tel: 01-2493333 or see
See also practicalparenting.ie.
Signs of anxiety Anger is often a cover-up for ‘I am really, really worried’
We tend to think of an anxious child as one who shakes silently in the corner but often that is not the case, says child and adolescent psychotherapist Colman Noctor.
“One of the things people don’t understand is that anger is a very primitive reaction to anxiety,” he explains. Anger is often a cover-up for “I am really, really worried.”
Girls are more prone to anxiety but it is also much more obvious in girls because they are likely to talk about it, while boys tend to express it differently. “They will be aggressive, they will be grumpy; girls tend to be more reclusive, withdrawn and studious. Often, anxiety in a boy is very hard to see because they just come across as truculent and difficult.”
Equally, parents can be astonished to be told that their daughter, who is getting As and is captain of the hockey team, “is entirely bundled up with anxiety inside because she has to keep it up”, Noctor says.
It is important for parents to look past children’s behaviour and see what they are thinking, then try to find out what they’re feeling, rather than trying to deal with just the behaviour.
All behaviour has a reason, says O’Malley. “If I am punishing behaviour, I am not creating a space for the child to say, ‘Nobody would play with me in the school yard today’, or ‘I am freaked about my Leaving Cert’.”
And it is always the “child’s truth” that matters; their perception of the truth, rather than the actual truth, adds Noctor, in working towards helping them.
Other signs that might indicate stress in a child include:
Frequent tummy pains or headaches
Comparing themselves unfavourably to other children
Eating too much or too little
Clinginess(long past the normal developmental stage of separation anxiety)
Self-harm in teenagers
Students under stress: How do they feel and how do they cope?
Leaving Certificate students are under pressure with a fortnight to go before the exams start, on June 4th. Here, three students describe how they feel:
Shahed Warreth (17) of Maryfield College, Drumcondra, Dublin, above, hopes to study politics and French, or computer science
On a scale of one to 10 (one is laid back and 10 is sick with fear) what’s your stress level? It varies, but I think it’s usually at eight.
Is this the most stressful time of your life? The past few months definitely, coupled with the fact that I was sick and absent from school for three weeks before my oral exams.
What’s your main worry? That I will run out of time for revision or that I’ll blank in an exam.
How does the stress affect you? Usually it helps to motivate me, but sometimes it gets a little overwhelming.
What’s the most helpful thing parents can do? Create a relaxed and supportive atmosphere. Seeing parents stressed out just adds to our stress.
What’s the least helpful thing parents can do? Not provide both physical and emotional support. It’s important for us to know that they’re there for us anytime we need them.
Aoife Kennedy (18) of Larkin Community College, Dublin 1, is aiming to get an arts degree so she can become a teacher
On a scale of one to 10, what’s your stress level? About five. I have worked since fifth year but panicking now is not going to help me next month.
Is this the most stressful time of your life?
I think I used all my stress during my orals but my Leaving Cert as a whole has been the most stressful time for me.
What’s your main worry? That I won’t get the points I need, or that I do get my points and more people than expected go for the course and I miss out by, like, five points.
How does the stress affect you? I think I work best when under stress. I work a lot quicker when under pressure and I remember important facts easier. So it affects me for the better.
What’s the most helpful thing parents can do? Stop talking about the Leaving Cert. We knows it’s coming up; we don’t need the reminder. It’s looming over us all the time.
What’s the least helpful thing parents can do? Expect chores to be done instantly. Studying takes up so much time and we can barely spare a moment, let alone an hour, to clean a whole room.
Shay McArdle (17), O’Fiaich College, Dundalk, Co Louth, hopes to study politics and history
On a scale of one to 10, what’s your stress level? Seven.
Is this the most stressful time of your life? Most certainly. There were stages throughout the year I honestly felt like giving up and lost all hope for my future, which led me to other problems.
What’s your main worry? The Irish, French and maths exams.
How does the stress affect you? When I am stressed at a level of seven or eight, I tend to study more. But when my stress level goes over eight, I cannot study at all.
What’s the most helpful thing parents can do? I think parents need to force their children to study because if you give 16-18 year olds a chance not to study, they will exploit this.
If you say to your children: “Study three hours a day, and your father and I will give you €30 for the weekend to relax,” or some other kind of incentive, that encourages children while forcing them.
What’s the least helpful thing parents can do? Be too relaxed about the child’s study and not pay any attention to their school life. Or over-force their children by, for example, not letting them out.
Then the child does not get to exercise, which is bad for studying, and will stress them to a point where they can’t handle it.