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December 15, 2000

Modern life fills children with anxiety, study finds

'Seeing the evening news can be difficult for some kids'

Jonathon Gatehouse
National Post

Buffeted by violence, social problems and environmental threats, the average North American child is now more anxious than children in psychiatric care were during the 1950s, says a newly published analytical study.

The massive review of almost five decades worth of scientific data, which appears in the latest edition of the American Psychological Association's Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, concludes that the slow disintegration of the ties that bind society together is creating generations of chronic worriers.

"The divorce rate is much higher, more people live alone, people marry later ... we feel much less of a sense of community than we used to," Jean Twenge, the study's author, said yesterday.

Increasing pressure from an early age for children to succeed exacerbates the problem.

"Television and movies create high expectations for us in appearance, wealth, jobs and relationships," said Ms. Twenge, a research psychologist with Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. "We end up aspiring to an unreachable ideal and that can cause tremendous anxiety."

In her study, Ms. Twenge reviewed the scores of 12,000 children, aged nine to 17, on standardized anxiety tests administered between the early 1950s and the 1990s, and compared them with social statistics such as crime, divorce and unemployment rates. The self-administered test asks for a Yes or No response to 53 statements such as: "It is hard for me to keep my mind on anything," "My feelings get hurt easily," and "Often I feel sick to my stomach."

The mean score from a sample of several hundred child psychiatric patients in 1957 was 20.82. A much larger sample of all children from the 1980s provided a mean score of 23.86. The researcher said there is little reason to believe results for tests today would differ significantly.

A parallel review of the anxiety tests of 42,000 college students over the same period showed a similar increase in the general level of worry.

Ms. Twenge said her research points to a stronger link between anxiety in children and external social factors than previously supposed. Though some perceived threats, like the risk of nuclear war, have diminished in recent years, other concerns, like environmental problems, have increased, she said. And even if children haven't been directly affected by things like crime or divorce, they are now more likely to be familiar with such problems, either through friends or the media.

The end result, said Ms. Twenge, is that children have a greater sense of life's difficulties at a much earlier age, a knowledge that often colours their adult years.

"We are carrying our childhood personality in us all of our lives," said Ms. Twenge.

People with chronic worries and self-doubts often have difficulties sustaining relationships and are prone to depression, she said. They may also suffer physically, having higher occurrences of asthma, irritable bowel syndrome, ulcers, inflammatory bowel disease and heart disease.

Dr. Katharina Manassis, a child psychiatrist who runs an anxiety clinic at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, said she is seeing an increasing number of stressed-out kids.

"We certainly see performance anxiety. We see kids who are worried about various situations in school ... Kids who are afraid of elevators and all kinds of other phobias. Kids who avoid social situations," she said.

However, Dr. Manassis cautions that her increasing number of patients could simply be due to greater public awareness of the problem.

And while society's diminishing social bonds may be a factor, she said, there are other issues at play.

Dr. Manassis said she advises concerned parents to first try to uncover the root of their children's problems and then determine whether they can be solved through simple means. For more serious cases, her clinic teaches relaxation techniques and offers cognitive behaviour therapy.

Even small adjustments, like a regular schedule in the home, or better control over what worried children watch, read or peruse on the Internet, can help, she said.

"Very often I'll tell parents that there's no need for kids to see grisly horror movies. Even seeing the evening news can be difficult for some kids," said Dr. Manassis.

"It's thinking what's going to be helpful for the child and knowing what the kids are watching ... It's a matter of parents being aware and limiting access to some of the more anxiety-provoking stuff."

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  • The Hospital for Sick Children
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