Today’s Anxious, Depressed Child

All that talk about today’s anxious, depressed children - it isn’t just talk.

It’s fact.

Study after study document an increase in depression and anxiety among children and teens.

One such study reports a 60% increase in youth depression.[1] That survey is buttressed by another study documenting that in 2017, 13% of U.S. teens said they had experienced at least one major depressive episode in the past year, up from 8% in 2007.[2]

And yet another study documents a 20% rise in teen anxiety between 2007 and 2012[3] - which abets our current reality, one where a third of children will, at some point, experience an anxiety disorder. [4]

You see these studies and you wonder: Isn’t this counterintuitive? Shouldn't today’s children be less troubled than their predecessors?

Aren’t many of today’s children protected by ”helicopter” parents who are always there for them?

A child forgets his snack? Many of today’s mothers will drop everything to drive across town to bring that snack. A child wants expensive outfits? Many of today’s fathers will work long hours to accommodate that. A child is at odds with her teacher? Many of today’s parents will validate the child without hearing the teacher’s perspective.

Today’s children don’t just benefit from superior parenting.

They also benefit from superior schooling.

Bullying still exists. But it isn’t the problem it once was. No, today’s teachers aren’t perfect. But they’re generally more qualified than their predecessors were.

Today’s children also benefit from the armies of social workers and psychologists that were unknown to their predecessors.

Today’s children benefit, then, from exceptional protections. And these protections, you assume, would create a generation of exceptionally untroubled children.

That, though, as we just saw, hasn’t occurred. Today’s children aren’t less troubled than their predecessors were. They’re, rather, more troubled than their predecessors were.

Why is this so? Why are today’s children so troubled?

It may be, surprisingly enough, because of their helpful protections.

And that’s because these helpful protections are also hurtful.

The hurt? It’s in how protection can obviate challenge.

Children who aren’t exposed to challenge won’t endure the struggles that addressing challenge requires. And those who don’t endure such struggles won’t discover the skills and the abilities that such struggles unearth. Skills like resilience, courage and flexibility. And abilities like the capacity for concession, innovation, and moderation

These skills and abilities germinate in proverbial “schools of hard knocks.” Those schools can bend, and break people. That bending and breaking, though, can also “bend and break people into better shape.”[5]

It’s what’s attested to in the following aphorism: “Adversity has made many a man great who, had he remained prosperous, would only have been rich.”

The parent who always brings the child his forgotten lunch obviates the child’s need to address his lunch - or his other – needs. And the psychologist who addresses all of a child’s social challenges obviates the child’s need to address social – or other - challenges. And because these children don’t contend with challenge or adversity they won’t be “bent and broken but into better shape.”[6]

And when challenges confront these children - and challenges confront all people – they won’t be in “better shape” and won’t be able to face those challenges. And this may be why small challenges pull so many of these children into anxiety or depression.

There’s a message here. It’s a message that some challenge and that certain “hard knocks” can help children.

And it’s a message that’s alluded to in our parsha’s recounting of our first post-Exodus desert journey.

That’s when: “They traveled three days in the wilderness and found no water. They came to Marah, but they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter.”[7]

Those bitter waters, though, were made drinkable. And that, the following possuk notes, happened when “Hashem showed Moshe a piece of wood; he threw it into the water and the water became sweet.”[8]

The wood that sweetened the water? “It was wood of the olive tree. Why? Because no wood is more bitter than that.”[9]

Bitter waters were sweetened by bitter wood! Yes, because bitterness – challenge, adversities, and “hard knocks” – can make bitter waters drinkable. And that, as noted before, is because bitterness unearths the powers that let us overcome challenge.

It’s a message for all of today’s helicopter parents. For all the mothers who drop everything to drive across town to bring that snack. And for all the fathers who work long hours to accommodate that. And for all the parents who validate a child without hearing the teacher’s perspective.

A message that, while we should shield children from too much challenge, we shouldn’t shield them from all challenge.

A message that having our children some time in the “school of hard knocks” may not be all that bad.

[1] 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health

[2] Pew Research Center analysis of data from the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health

[3] April 2018 edition Journal of Developmental Psychology

[4] Claire McCarthy, Anxiety in Teens is Rising: What's Going On? Healthy Children.org, Nov. 20, 2019

[5] Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

[6] Ibid.

[7] Shemos 15:22-24

[8] Shemos 15:25

[9] Mechilta, ad loc. This Midrash is motivated by the verse’s use of the enigmatic Hebrew word vayorehu” – a word that correlates with the word “marah.” The word means bitter which may indicate that the wood was bitter.

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