The anxiety pandemic in children and adolescents and how schools have a lot to answer for

I know way too many parents who have a child who can’t cope anymore. Children with anxiety, OCD, nightmares, tics, anger issues, and more. They get diagnosed with one disorder or another, sent to the psychologist, and often medicated. How many people in your own network do you know that have kids with ‘problems’? Is this normal? Of course it isn’t. Never before in history have we seen such a great amount of mental health issues amongst children and young people in the world. You can’t tell me that is because we are now better at diagnosing these types of things. Yes, we are. But the true question is: why are there so many children suffering from mental health conditions, and what is the cause?

Nevermind Covid-19, this is the real pandemic, and all we seem to be doing is medicate our children, in order to cope with the unnatural pressures of today’s world. Instead, we should see all the mental health disorders in children for what they really are: alarm bells. Warning signs that we are completely ignoring as a society. It is not natural that more and more young people need a psychologist, just to go to school. It is not normal that they develop tics. That they need medication to numb the pain, the depression, the stress, that is raging through their small bodies.

Too many adult-led activities and over-scheduling

I look around me in the streets, in traffic, in schools, and I see stress. People seem to be constantly in a rush. To go to work, to drop off the kids, to pick them up, to go home, to be on time. Do you feel it is normal that a child has every hour of the day scheduled? They spend all day in school, then they have tons of homework, plus extracurricular activities and sports classes in the evenings and on the weekends. Everything is adult-led. When do children and young people have down-time? Time to be bored? Time to FEEL? How did we end up as humans to be so obsessed with the academic and other achievements of our children, and forget about their hearts?

When we select a school for our children, we tend to go with what others are recommending, and the reputation of the school. This usually has to do with the academic results of the children who come out the other end. When a high percentage is able to apply for university after having been to this particular school, it makes us go ‘that is a good sign, we will get our kids in there’. What we fail to do, however, is to study our children, and look at the person they really are. We quickly dismiss any shyness or sensitive characteristics, and think that a ‘good school’ will teach them how to cope with that, so they are able to become functioning adults and get a good job.

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How many of those sensitive, and often very creative, children are being failed in these schools? How many of them are being told that they are unable to concentrate, that there is a problem, that they are behind, that they need extra support? And how many of us, parents, are brave enough to say ‘no’ to that? To stand up for our children, because we recognise that our children are not failing – but the system is failing them?

Creating super-humans instead of looking after mental health

I spoke to a friend of mine the other day, who also has a sensitive child. She wanted to move her kids to a ‘better’ school, one with fancy facilities, and more status. One that would ‘push them them a bit more academically, because, as she put it, “her son needs more discipline, as he can be quite lazy”. But she made a 180 degree U-turn last week, after she spoke to a few teachers who work at another private school, with a similar excellent reputation academically. They asked her: “Are your children happy where they are right now? Do they talk about what they’ve done in school, and do you see that they are learning?” My friend said yes to all of that. “Then why move them? Is the move better for your children, or is it to do with what you think is best for them?”

I know from experience how much we feel torn as parents to “do what’s best for our children”. But more often than not, we tend to choose what we think will give them the best job opportunities in life. And it’s often also an ego-thing.

What do we want for our children? Most parents would say:”Well, we just want our children to be happy”. But what we really feel and base our decisions on, is that we want them to be able to look after themselves financially. And to achieve this, most of us believe that our children need to go to a ‘good’ school that has the highest academic standards, and to be exposed to as many sports, arts, languages, robotics classes, and other ‘educational’ experiences as possible.

It’s like parents all strive to make super-humans out of their children nowadays. Super-humans who have the best academic skills, social skills, sports achievements, and everything else that shows that they are excelling at all they do. Their kids have become their main projects. If the kids are starting to show problems, then they got to fix them, so that they can get back in the race.

Respecting our children’s boundaries

Now, ask yourself, do any of these things help your child to build a good mental health? Do they learn the skills to deal with emotional turmoil and potential burnout before the age of 18? What do they learn by working so hard every day of the week, at such a young age? They certainly don’t learn how to feel and be, instead of do. We fail to respect our children’s boundaries, and personal preferences. There is too much going on in their lives. We drag them from here to there, rushing, running, never stopping. We teach them that life is a race, and if you can’t keep up, there is something wrong with you.

I talk about this topic a lot with my friends, some of whom have children with anxiety too. You know what they all say? That their kids often yearn to be in nature. That they love going into the woods, run in the fields, simply play with sticks in a stream, lie on their back in the grass and look at the clouds. That they love rolling in the sand on the beach. And what they love most, is to just be with their parents and spend time with them, no matter what the activity is. Time off, together.

This to me says everything: our children know instinctively what is good for them, and what they need to feel balanced again. Nature. The one connection that we as humans have always had throughout history, but we have completely lost in our modern day society. Our kids know.

Our children will learn when they are relaxed and happy. They would learn whether or not they are in school. Humans are curious by nature, they want to learn. A baby learns to walk, not because we teach them how to walk; they learn by themselves. We do not have to process piles of academic information through a child’s head, for them to memorise this, feel stressed about passing many exams, only to receive a diploma that enables them to enter the next thread-mill and rat race: work. And probably a life-long trip to the therapist.

When will we stop this anxiety pandemic, and help our children find true happiness in life?

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