It’s Hard to Be a Child

by Mark Vonnegut, M.D.

It’s hard to be a child.  There’s a very real epidemic of anxious children.  It’s not just that we’re noticing it more, more kids are in counseling or on psychiatric medications or both than ever before.  Once upon a time pediatrics was mostly about ear infections, strep throats, and asthma with developmental delays thrown in.

Why are kids so anxious?  It’s partly because their parents are anxious, and it’s a more dangerous world.  We are all connected to media and we hear and see tragedy and disasters local and far away as they happen.  Children are rightly taught about “stranger danger” and drugs and alcohol but what they hear is danger, danger, danger.

Standardized testing and the importance of grades has created “A Race To Nowhere” where a “B” or heaven forbid, a “C”, is a serious problem about which something or a lot of something must be done.

Teachers are increasingly forced to prepare students for standardized tests.  The joy of learning and teaching suffer.

The importance of getting into a “good” college and then a good career are felt in junior high and even elementary school.  No one plays outside anymore.  There are

ridiculous amounts of homework most of which teach nothing. There are computer games which teach less than nothing and virtual friends are not real.

The best anti-anxiety medication is running around.  Now all playground activity is scheduled and supervised and often “graded.”  Did you make the Travel team or recreational level.

Parents are infinitely interruptible and busy, so kids too become consumed by cell phones and social media.  A casual or unkind word about who likes who can wreck a day or week or a year.  Most kids don’t sleep well or enough.

So what can we do about all this?

  • Unplug from electronics and cell phones if only for an hour or two a day.
  • Unstructured time will give rise to genuine play.
  • Family activities such as card games, board games, etc.
  • Listen to your children without distractions.
  • Spend time outdoors in hiking or walking in nature and with animals.
  • Get a dog.
  • Volunteer work as a family.
  • Deal with our own anxiety, stress, obsessions, and addictions.

That’s about what we can do.  There will still be anxious children, but not nearly as many; and you and we can be there for them.