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Children need time, most of all, to build resilience

Intelligencer Journal - 2/11/2019

Pediatricians are seeing epidemic-level numbers of children and teens with anxiety disorders and physical problems related to anxiety.

I currently estimate that more than 25 percent of the problems I discuss with parents and children in a day are stress-related. Anxiety presents in so many ways in kids: school avoidance, sleep problems, headaches, panic attacks, depressed mood and stomach pains are only a few ways that kids can show their stress.

For over a decade, teachers, parents and pediatricians have been crying for help in this area. It is time for everyone to listen.

Defining the problem

Anxiety is defined as excessive worry over a variety of topics with three or more accompanying symptoms such as tiredness, trouble sleeping, panic attacks, restlessness, irritability, difficulty concentrating and muscle aches. The presence of anxiety can lead to other medical problems such as abdominal pain, diarrhea, headaches or chronic nausea.

Chemically, anxiety induces an imbalance of neurotransmitters in the brain such as epinephrine, dopamine and serotonin.

Anxiety is the most common mental health issue in children and adolescents. It is the mental health disorder that affects children at the youngest ages, and one that is often pervasive throughout adulthood.

To get an idea of the depth and breadth of this problem, consider that generalized anxiety disorders occur in about 10 percent of all children and adolescents with average age of onset between 8-9 years. Six to 10 percent of all children in the United States are on a psychotropic medication — that is, medication that acts on the mind.

The emotional cost becomes real when you think of it as the “missing- out” disease: countless missed days of school, missed friendships, missed chances to grow physically and mentally, and missed opportunities to share oneself with others.

It is certainly tempting to blame one source for this problem. Genetics, electronics, social media, school lockdowns, educational testing and helicopter parenting are all things I have heard implicated.

But as with most serious problems anxiety doesn’t have just one cause. If I had to choose just one theme, however, that underlies its varying causes, it would be time.

Perhaps it is because of the internet, or maybe it’s because we just have so many choices, but the world moves so much faster now than it used to. And nowhere do I notice this more than in our children.

So many things distract us, and our kids, from what we and they really need. Doctors write a lot of prescriptions for anxiety — millions actually — and most of them are appropriate. But if I was able to write a script for everyone it would be for the effective prevention and therapy that time provides.

At school

Our children may experience lockdowns, bullying, standardized testing and other stressors at school. We know that each child will react to these experiences differently.

Students and teachers are not given the time and the training to process these traumas and cope with them adequately. Further, there is a paucity of brain breaks, which have been shown to be protective and therapeutic for all ages. Recess time has been drastically reduced or eliminated. Fun activities such as movie day, school plays and sharing have been nudged out by tight curricular schedules.

Teachers are overwhelmed by expectations and have not been taught the skills needed to help our kids through an educational system that has no downtime, and no time for reflection or recovery.

Prescription for our schools: Time for mental health training for teachers, time for mindfulness in the classroom, time for more free play and free thought, and time for group discussions and interactions to allow students to feel connected.

At home

It is the same story at home. We need time to make meaningful connections at family dinner. Time to provide structure and discipline. Time for kids to understand what their family’s values are and to realize how much they are loved.

Parents need to eliminate the distractions of life — their own and their children’s — to allow for time to talk about things like lockdowns, social media interactions, and academic expectations in a loving, supportive and reassuring way. Finally, at home, there needs to be time together that is just fun. It is during the fun times that we convey family values and unconditional love, two things that our children need to develop resilience.

Prescription for home: Time for fun and discussions so that regardless of what defines “family” in each case, children are certain they are an important part of one, and understand this to be a place to seek unending support.

Let kids play

Children need time for play.

While the activities will change with age, the benefits will not; play time heals the brain and teaches coping mechanisms.

Children also need time for sleep. We are raising a generation of sleep-deprived children who do not understand the value of sleep or what effective sleep hygiene looks like.

They need time for exercise — 60 minutes a day, and it doesn’t need to be drills aimed at impressing college recruiters. Just exercise, preferably outdoors.

Prescription for children: Time to discover who they are and what it takes to keep themselves healthy.

What parents need

Parents, you need time for your own happiness. Time to face and conquer some of your parenting fears. Time to think things through and be sure the choices you’re making for your family are creative, mindful and focused. Time to see how stress affects your child — whether it be stomachaches or panic attacks, it is very important that parents understand the mind-body connection.

Prescription for parents: Time to breathe and bring peace to the family.

The community

As a community, we need time to thoughtfully work on our problems together rather than focusing on sound bites that emphasize our differences. Time to allocate resources toward things that have been proven to make a difference in our stress levels — things like alleviating poverty, decreasing gun violence, adding green spaces and setting up programs that create social connections for all people.

Prescription for the community: Time for true listening, understanding and action.

Precious commodity

Sometimes we can make our world less stressful for our children. Sometimes we must help them recover from inevitable stressors. But most importantly we need to give them the thing they need to build resilience and that thing is time.

So the next time you are distracted from a conversation with a child, or fill your child’s day (and yours) with meaningless commitments, or teach a lesson when you know your child needs free time, or make judgments about the kids of today based on Facebook memes, please right yourself. Time is the most precious commodity. Don’t waste it.

Dr. Pia Fenimore, of Lancaster Pediatric Associates, writes the “Ask a Pediatrician” column for the Lancaster Living section of Sunday LNP. You can submit questions at Features@LNPnews.com.

Credit: DR. PIA FENIMORE | LNP Correspondent