LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
There is no question this is an anxious time. We're worried about our health, our families and our jobs. But for America's youngest generations, it comes after years of increasing stress. Depression and suicide rates among teens and kids have been doubling in recent years. As Kate Julian put it in her article in The Atlantic, an increasing number of our kids are not all right. And Kate Julian joins us now. Hi, there.
KATE JULIAN: Hi.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So this pandemic has added a unique stress on our kids. But let's start with the big picture. Academic stress, social media, smartphones are putting kids on edge. What are we missing from those conversations?
JULIAN: We tend to get sort of stalled in a discussion of what is causing it. Is it smartphones? Is it not smartphones? Is it social media? Is it academic stress? And I think a much more productive way to be talking about this right now might be to say, for whatever set of reasons, kids are finding life hard right now. And so what can we do to start preparing them for a reality that may be more difficult than the one that their parents - or just to say my generation - grew up with?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, you narrow in on one particular thing called accommodation to explain possibly why kids are not coping as well with the various stresses in their life. Can you explain?
JULIAN: Accommodation is something that anxiety researchers have zeroed in on as a way that people around an anxious person tend to respond. So in the case of parents when a kid is anxious, parents will 95% of the time try to do things to accommodate their anxiety, which is to say to do things to reduce the kid's sort of feeling of discomfort or stress. And researchers have also found that that accommodation actually really makes outcomes worse.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Is it something like, my kid is feeling anxious about whatever, and instead of teaching them to cope I say, OK, you can sleep in bed with me, like I did the other night because she was afraid of spiders that don't exist? Like that?
JULIAN: (Laughter) That's a very familiar...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Asking for a friend.
JULIAN: I have heard that, experienced versions of that myself. So yeah, I think bedtime is a great example. And the problem with that is when it's done in response to the child's fear of something, the kid doesn't actually learn to deal with the fear over time, right? So they become almost dependent on their parents for that help. And the thing that they're fearing actually becomes more and more scary over time.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You have some pretty extreme examples here of how certain parents accommodate for their kids.
JULIAN: Yes, so a lot of the really interesting work on accommodation has been done out of Yale's Child Study Center, led by a scholar named Eli Lebowitz who's developed something called the SPACE program, which aims to help parents reduce their accommodation. And the idea here is that by doing that, the kids become more capable, and then the parents can in time sort of let them conquer their own fears and worries. Separation anxiety tends to be one of the first anxiety disorders to manifest in kids at younger ages. Let's say the kid is afraid to go upstairs and get his backpack because he doesn't like being in a part of the house by himself. You're rushing to get him to school. You're rushing to get yourself to work. And so you go up and get it yourself. It's faster. It's easier. But the problem is that it kind of ends up being an example of trading short-term pain for long-term gain.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, you talk about how we as parents, because we work such long hours, maybe, we have a lot of stress so that when we're with our kids for maybe an hour in the evening, we want it to be, you know, these special moments that are crammed into less and less time.
JULIAN: It is striking that our approach to parenting does tend to be not only really child-centered but in some ways actually really parent-unfriendly. You wind up with these situations where parents, in order to make things pleasant and smooth in the short-term, are cooking different dinners for different kids. And the parents are therefore frazzled and sleep-deprived and probably not their best selves.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Objectively, though - right? - stressful things are happening. We are in the middle of a global pandemic (laughter) after all. What did your research tell you about what might help kids and adults through this time?
JULIAN: We know that anxiety travels within families. And at a time when we're closed off and spending a lot more time in our homes with our family unit, that means that if adults have anxiety and stress that they're not dealing with, they need to deal with it. The second thing I would say has to do with how we talk to our kids about what's going on. A lot of us think, you know, this is stressful stuff. We don't know what's going to happen. So it's probably best to just turn off the news and avoid the topic as best we can. The problem with that advice is that they're not stupid. They know that what's going on right now isn't normal. And if you pretend that it's normal, that probably only adds to their own level of stress and confusion. The other thing that we can do is try to model for them what we do when we're stressed out. Here are some things that are in my toolbox. What's in your toolbox?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Kate Julian. Her article in The Atlantic is online now. Thank you so much.
JULIAN: It was great talking to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.