Children today are more depressed than they were at the height of the Great Depression, researchers say, and second-hand stress is a major culprit. One survey of 1000 children in West Australia, found 35 per cent of the respondents had "too much stress" in their lives and highlighted family conflict as a significant source of this stress.
"There has been a considerable increase in stress and it's been particularly marked over the last decade," Dr Stuart Shanker, a Canadian research professor, told Health+Medicine. Too much visual stimulation from devices such as television, computers and video games are partly to blame, Dr Shanker says. But high parental stress from factors including economic crisis, marital breakdown and urban living are significantly affecting a child's ability to self-regulate.
"Self-regulation is the ability to manage your own energy states, emotions, behaviours and attention, in ways that are socially acceptable and help achieve positive goals, such as maintaining good relationships, learning and maintaining wellbeing," he says.
When a child is exposed to too many stressors, the body's ability to self-regulate and return themselves to "baseline" gets worn out, says Dr Shanker. This can worsen pre-existing conditions on the autism spectrum or give rise to other issues like obesity, cardiovascular disease, anxiety or depression. While the West Australian survey targeted five to 18-year-olds, Gary Johnston, a psychotherapist says the root of the stress can start much earlier. He explains that in the first five years of a child's life, they don't usually have the ability to "rationalise what is going on around them."
"Their awareness of what's going on is based on how the world affects them ... Anything that happens around them, anything anybody says or does, those kids take it as being their fault."In addition, the way that a potentially stressful situation unfolds can contribute to the severity of the impact. For instance Jocelyn Brewer, a psychologist who works with school children, says that when marital disharmony happens behind closed doors, it may make matters worse, as the kids may imagine that they are responsible for their parents arguing.
Instead, open discussion and acknowledgement, by the parents, that things aren't rosy but that they are trying to work through a tough patch, can actually be a positive life lesson for kids, Brewer says.
"It's actually about resolving an issue in front of the kids so that they can see that problems can be overcome and they can have models of appropriate or effective problem-solving and conflict resolution."
It can also build resilience.
"[It's important for children to know that] life isn't always going to be a smooth sail. When there are problems, how you cope with those problems is the most important thing," she says. As well as encouraging an open, transparent atmosphere, Brewer emphasises the importance of parental education. She believes resources to help parents would be more beneficial than programs like the mental health screening process that was recently announced for three-year-olds. "Why aren't we doing more to help parents in setting boundaries, role modelling and understanding attachment styles?" she says. "If parents understood a little bit more about boundary setting, that would probably be a better use of the $11 million than trying to do internalising and externalising behaviour checks on three-year-olds," she says.
Johnston agrees and cautions that there is a real risk of putting labels on children. "[If you] put a label of severe mental disorder or anxiety on a child, they will become that disorder. I agree with it totally, they should be looking at the parents, not the kids," Johnston says. In the 25 years that Dr Shanker has been working with kids, he says that he has never seen a bad, stupid or lazy child.
"But if we do the wrong things or allow the wrong things to be done to them, they can become lazy, bad and stupid."In the modern world, where exposure to some second-hand stress is inevitable, Dr. Shanker's says simple boundaries can help to minimise the impact of this stress. "The solutions are real easy, the solutions themselves are not rocket science. Get your kid to bed, have your kid eat properly," he says. He also says some activities can help children to "top up the gas" when they are depleted of energy. Sports, music, yoga and non-competitive Tae-Kwon-do all play an incredible role at helping kids regulate themselves, he says.
He likens learning how to self-regulate to driving a car, where there is a constant need to scan the roads, accelerate, brake and change gears. Some children accelerate, brake or change gears too quickly, resulting in a not so smooth ride. And like learning to driving a car through city roads, learning to self-regulate in the modern world takes time and practice.