In Episode 3, Season 2 of Big Little Lies, Amabella (daughter of the Alexander McQueen-clad banshee known as Renata) crawls into a school closet and passes out from a panic attack. This didn’t seem that odd to me, for if my mother were a furious, shrieking Laura Dern I’m pretty sure I’d begin each day by breathing into a paper bag, but the scene did give some viewers pause. Do little kids really have anxiety freak-outs at that level? Is this just more rich white Monterey people being bonkers? Or is anxiety increasing in children?
The answer, sadly, is that kids today do in fact appear to be more stressed. As The Washington Post reported last May, a study conducted by the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics found that between 2007 and 2012, diagnoses of anxiety and depression went up by 20 percent among kids ages 6 to 17.
I spoke with Dr. Tamar Chansky, a psychologist, founder and director of the Children's and Adult Center for OCD and Anxiety, and author of Freeing Your Child From Anxiety, who believes there are many factors contributing to the rising stress levels of kids. She tells Romper that she thinks some of it has to do with "increased and earlier pressure on kids to perform" and what she calls "acceleration mode — where everyone is anxious about the future, and the burgeoning sense that perfection is attainable. Which it is not."
Dr. Chansky is quick to note that she is not pointing fingers at the parents. "While parents have been blamed for this, and there certainly may be instances where that’s warranted, in general parents are responding to the uncertainty and future orientation in the culture."
She does however point the finger at social media: "Studies have shown how social media increases anxiety and depression among children, not only with the risks of social comparison, rejection, and bullying, but the fear of missing out makes all kids feel like they are not enough, and their lives aren’t enough."
To make matters worse, Dr. Chansky says children often work to mask their anxiety. "A lot of kids are what I would call undercover anxious. They would never want anyone to know how stressed out they feel, and that in and of itself adds to their stress." But she says some common signs to watch out for are frequent headaches and stomachaches, as well as sleep issues. With little children, Dr. Chansky says excessive crying and clinginess can also be tip-offs.
Along with the issues Dr. Chansky raises, kids today really are faced with some truly immense pressures and worries. Active shooter drills, and the panic surrounding climate change, just to name a couple. Big Little Lies viewers may recall that the fear of global warming is actually what set off little Amabella's attack. So a scene depicting a child climbing into a closet and passing out from worry... well, it sadly feels not only plausible, but completely understandable.
If parents suspect their child may be struggling with anxiety, they should reach out to their pediatrician, or seek help at the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Dr. Chansky also recommends parents sit down with their kid and discuss their angst. "It's important to normalize [a child's fears] and let kids know that anxiety and worry are part of how human beings are built. The important thing is that they learn ways of handling those worry thoughts, so that kids can stay in charge of their life."