“Everyone thinks that parenting is the hardest job in the world. But they’re wrong, growing up is,” says psychiatrist, Dr. Samantha Boardman quoting a line from Harry Potter. Dr. Boardman and psychologist Dr. Shannon Bennett spoke to a packed house on April 10 at Teaching Matter’s Annual Breakfast Speaker’s Series held at a private club in Manhattan. This year’s topic was The Impact of Youth Anxiety: How to Help Your Children Navigate Stress in Childhood, Adolescence and Emerging Adulthood.
Attendees included: Aleksandra Cragg, Arriana Boardman, CeeCee Belford, Dana Creel, Ingrid Edelman, Janna and Zoe Bullock, Kate Allen, Leslie Brille, Maja DuBrul, Patricia Farman-Farmaian, Talene Baroyan, Debbie August, Danielle Ganek, Amelia Junquera, Kristina Stewart Ward, Stefanie Loeffler, Simone Mailman, Nicole Pickett, Nathalie Kaplan, Marissa von Bokhorst, Marie-Noelle Pierce, Kalliope Karella, Erin Nalbandian, Renée Domingo, Erica Karsch, Alexia Leuschen, Anjali Melwani, Amalia Pisante, Betsy Pitts, Amanda Ross Bacon, Patricia Shuster, Sarina Ogden, Wibby Sevener, Annie Taube, Brita Steffelin, Cecilia Vonderheide, Nancy Sipp, Olga Votis, Danielle Walker, Caryn Zucker, Margot Takian and Peggy Siegal.
A record number of college students feel overwhelmed – 62% according to a 2016 survey by the American College Health Association, up from 50% in 2011. Disturbingly, there is also a marked increase in suicides. Arrivals in emergency rooms for suicidal children and teens has doubled since 2007, with the average age being just 13, according to Dr. Boardman. So, what can be done to alleviate the high levels of stress among teenagers and young adults?
A certain level of anxiety is natural, even desirable informs Dr. Bennett. This serves a purpose because exposure to uncomfortable situations helps one cope with stress. All children experience normal amounts of fear, anxiety and sadness. But when does anxiety turn into a disorder? When it begins to impact development, discloses Dr. Bennett – when it interferes with the day, when it swerves young people off their developmental tract. Indicators include physical complaints like stomach aches or headaches; an avoidance of outside and interpersonal activities like school and parties; an excessive need for reassurance; inattention and under-performance at school; explosive outbursts, eating problems and difficulty sleeping.
What then are effective coping mechanisms? Exposure therapy is an option, offers Dr. Bennett. A type of cognitive behavioral therapy, exposure therapy subjects a person to feared situations without any danger present. The objective is to help extinguish the fear surrounding the situation.
There is a lot that parents can do as well. Parents are wired to protect their kids, says Dr. Boardman. “But when we’re consistently protecting our kids, we don’t let them learn how to manage stress,” continues the psychiatrist. “Their social skills and problem-solving skills are not developed.” So-called helicopter parenting or snowplow parenting are sabotaging. “You want to be there,” says Dr. Boardman, but you should take a step back.”
To that end, “modeling” and “messaging” are useful tools. The former entails an appropriate amount of sharing by letting your kids know how you dealt with an uncomfortable situation: “I had a stressful day, but this is how I coped with it,” says Dr. Bennett by way of example. Messaging asks that parents consider the signs that they send their children. “If we always swoop in, we’re sending the message that we don’t have confidence in them,” warns Dr. Bennett. It’s important to let kids experience failure and make mistakes. But when to start? “The younger the better because the stakes are lower,” advises the psychologist.
In addition, parents should avoid “co-ruminating” instructs Dr. Boardman. Co-ruminating is when we’re “re-living a situation over and over.” It usually starts with the sentence “Tell me exactly what happened,” explains the founder of Positive Prescription. This only serves to raise blood pressure levels. Instead, advises Dr. Boardman, parents should try to just be a fly on the wall by distancing themselves, giving advice and moving forward.
Nor should parents avoid arguing in front of their kids counsels Dr. Bennett. Of course, there are rules of engagement. The disagreements should be framed as respectful discourse.
Finally, there are activities that kids themselves can engage in in order to reduce stress, namely: (1) service activities – i.e. doing nice things for other people – offering to help with the dishes for instance; (2) achievement oriented activities like doing homework; (3) fun activities; (4) social activities; and (5) physical activities – i.e. exercise. “Doing nice things for others reduces anxiety and doing things in general makes us feel better,” says Dr. Bennett. But, stresses Dr. Boardman, it’s important to set up concrete tasks to make yourself act, especially when it comes to physical activity.
No discussion on this topic would be complete without referencing social media. How we use technology matters, says Dr. Boardman. Employed as a tool to connect with others, it promotes well-being. But if it’s used as an avoidance technique – “scrolling, looking at the wonderful things people are doing without you,” that’s not good, cautions the psychiatrist.
It may be alarming to learn that teens don’t leave stress behind once adolescence is in the rearview mirror. “Adulthood was pegged to age 18,” says Dr. Bennett “but the brain continues to develop well into adulthood, up to the age of 28.” One’s 20s are a period of “emerging adulthood” – a potent time of exploration which can be quite stressful. “People in their 20s on average change jobs seven times and move once a year,” according to Dr. Bennett. But, while they are experiencing high rates of stress and depression, they are also recording high rates of optimism.
What then, promotes well-being in life? Three conditions according to Dr. Boardman: being loved, having autonomy and feeling competent. It’s as simple and as complicated as that.
Teaching Matters, founded by Elizabeth Rohatyn, is a national professional learning organization dedicated to increasing teacher effectiveness, a critical factor in student success. From states and districts to the classroom, Teaching Matters partners with public schools to help teacher and school leaders develop the skills they need to teach well, lead their peers and drive school-wide improvement. The education nonprofit envisions a nation where every student has equitable access to excellent teaching, no matter their zip code and strives to close the opportunity gap of a radically unequal education system for underserved children. Over the course of 20 years, Teaching Matters has offered year-round, in-depth programming to approximately 1,000 schools, 30,000 teachers and 500,000 students. For more information, click here.