According to a 2015 study, 27.8% of Hong Kong’s primary school children have anxiety symptoms so severe that professional help is warranted. 5-year-olds complaining of tummy aches without apparent cause, 8-year-olds having trouble falling asleep or suddenly refusing to go school, 10-year-olds facing bullying and hostility (in person and for older kids, on social media)- Dr. Yik sees her share of anxious children and teenagers in this high-strung city. She has, sadly, even had to counsel and treat high achievers who suddenly break down mentally and physically, as well as parents of teens who committed suicide while studying abroad.
Everyone, including children, will experience anxiety at one point or another. When it is temporary (like not being able to sleep one night after watching a scary movie, or getting nervous right before a test), it’s usually harmless. But anxiety becomes a problem when it’s not managed properly or when it continuously affects their sleep and/ or daily activities (e.g. school, social or extracurricular activities, appetite, etc.).
WHY ARE SO MANY CHILDREN SUFFERING FROM ANXIETY?
- Some experts blame the education system, which promotes competition and pressure to succeed from a young age (click here to read more about overly stressed children). Kids nowadays often feel pressured to “win”, be “number one” or outdo and outsmart their peers- all the time. Without proper stress management techniques and a healthy sense of self-worth, this tremendous weight on their shoulders can easily lead to anxiety and later on, depression.
- Could it be the parents? Some blame “helicopter” parenting, where parents take an overprotective or excessive approach to their children’s education and wellbeing. Children of such parents may feel smothered or helpless, unable to solve their own problems or carry out daily tasks without fear of their parents stepping in and controlling the situation. These kids also miss the opportunity to develop the necessary life skills to navigate through life’s trials. Other experts point out that extravagant and excessive praise from parents can also lead to anxiety in children. Imagine getting trophies for mere participation and constantly being touted as being “super” or “amazing”. Then, imagine stepping into the real world and realizing that people don’t receive trophies or praise for mere participation or mediocre performance. This eventual realization impacts a child’s confidence and self-esteem, which very often leads to anxiety. See below for the difference between praising a child’s innate quality and praising his/ her efforts.
- Social media dictates what’s acceptable and what’s not for many older children and teenagers. “How many ‘likes’ will I get?” “Is the way I wear this acceptable?” “Why did she make that comment?” This generation is obsessed with peer acceptance. What happens when they don’t get it? Or worse, what happens when they face bullying or rejection from so-called friends?
- Are children getting enough of what nature can offer? Studies show that people who spend time in the great outdoors (or even look at pictures of nature) experience less mental stress and reduced levels of anxiety. If you live in Hong Kong, look out your window right now. What do you see?
HOW CAN WE, AS PARENTS, HELP?
- Support your children by being there physically for them and by offering them professional help if needed. Listen to them without judging, tell them how much they are loved and supported and remind them that you will walk with them together through this stage of life. When children and teenagers know they are accepted, supported and loved no matter what, they are more likely to recover quicker with appropriate treatment.
- Self-regulation is just as important as academics! In practice, Dr. Yik finds that while Hong Kong children tend to excel in academics, they often have trouble regulating their emotions and behaviour, resisting impulses, and exerting self-control (on their own, without parental help or supervision). Self-regulation is a crucial life skill for children to develop. Kids who can self-regulate are generally less anxious, less angry and less hostile toward others. When children are young, they learn how to self-regulate through play and games, so ensure plenty of free play time for them. If your child is older, a counsellor or therapist may be able to help him/ her navigate through their emotions and behaviour, teaching them how to respond appropriately to different emotions and take control of their actions.
- Eddie Brummelman of Utrecht University in the Netherlands found in a 2013 study that praising children for their personal qualities may backfire, making them more ashamed when they fail. “Adults may feel that praising children for their inherent qualities helps combat low self-esteem, but it might convey to children that they are valued as a person only when they succeed,” Brummelman said. “When children subsequently fail, they may infer they are unworthy.” Along these lines, sometimes failure is a necessary step for children to learn how to get back up and to build resilience. Children who are praised for their efforts are more likely to try again when faced with failure.
- Reassure your children that their self-worth and identity are not rooted in their academic performance or other achievements. Don’t push your children to chase YOUR unfulfilled dreams or to follow in your footsteps.
- Always be available to your child and keep all lines of communication open. Older kids are more likely to share their struggles (e.g. bullying, stresses) when they know that their parents genuinely care and are willing to listen without judging.
- Seek a health care practitioner who looks at the whole picture. Pharmaceutical drugs can help reduce anxiety but it may not work for every child or teenager. There are numerous treatment protocols and techniques that can benefit your child and help address the symptoms and root causes of anxiety (e.g. cognitive behavioural therapy, herbal medicine, nutraceuticals, etc.). Find a doctor who listens and cares for your child’s wellbeing, and is willing to tailor the treatment plan to suit your child’s needs.