Depression and anxiety seem to be on the rise within our young generation. Too many families are haunted by depression, tracing it back multiple generations. I’m listening to enough kids in my practice with increasing anxiety that it often sounds like they’re coming apart at the seams. Adolescents and children are struggling with anxiety in a pulsating youth environment within an unstable world. It may not be evident when you first meet them. Typically, these kids don’t behave anxiously, nor do they present with some of the usual symptoms of compulsive anxiety. They seldom are concerned about world problems on which the rest of us are quite focused. Rather, these adolescents appear sophisticated, brimming with techno-savvy, their anxiety today looking quite different. As one psychologist described it: “It’s at once chaotic, chronic, and cool — more invisible than the air we breathe.”

Yet, when we immerse ourselves in the lives of pre-adolescents and adolescents, we then see more clearly that their sometimes-precocious facade is shielding feelings of fear and angst, unexpected for kids of ages 11 to 16. Once they share their racing thoughts with us, we realize they’re navigating through a daily stream of unrelenting stress, with persistent feelings of not being enough. Our culture tends to be overly concerned with predictability and safety. Being attentive parents, we have a tendency to believe we must protect our children from experiencing fear, distress, or feelings of vulnerability. since we now have the means to maintain constant technological connection with them, we’re able to provide ongoing reassurance, both for them and for ourselves, reinforcing we’ve got them covered. It keeps us and them feeling secure, so we readily use the technology. Is this a problem?

Yes, and for good reason. Children need to learn how to solve their problems. It’s important for them to learn how to be innovative, to devise their own solutions when situations aren’t predictable, to know how to adapt when plans shift. This is an important part of their growth. Anxiety will inevitably show up, as will disappointment, loss and, occasionally, even emergencies. We might imagine something alarming, although what we imagine can also help us prepare for the reality. Our job is to help our children responsibly function with anxiety. By overindulging them, we rob them of valuable experiences they need to manage in the outside world.

When we support our children’s discomfort, allowing them to awkwardly move through it, they can gradually release themselves from anxiety’s grip. When anxiety is better understood, families are better able to reframe what happens in their family life, understanding there isn’t a definitive antidote for worry. By parents modeling this for themselves, we can teach children to be willing to try new things, to take some risks, and to embrace anxiety as a fundamental part of life. Parents can reveal their own discomfort, while effectively managing their anxiety, ensuring their children can grow, flourish, and even sometimes not succeed.

Be aware of your child’s cues, keeping in mind that temperament will play a role in how fear and worry manifest. Allow her to guide you through her cognitive and emotional process. Share the experience through her lens. When your child expresses anxiety, hear the feelings. Support him, by connecting to what he needs, brainstorming options for softening any required adjustment, while letting him determine how to proceed through the initial challenges.

Your child is letting you know she needs compassion, patience, and respect for her unique needs. Ask her what would be helpful, while maintaining a calm, predictable routine. Help him understand the role his temperament plays in positive terms, framing his adjustment as the special way he approaches new situations, supporting him through the hurdles with minimal impact. Children move at different paces, developing and maturing on variable timelines. What one child masters may not be what another child does at the same time. How your child learns will be different from other children’s respective abilities.

Parents have a critical role in developing a collaborative partnership between home and school. Whether your child is starting preschool, kindergarten, or middle school, the transition might create struggles. Parents need to recognize when anxiety is taking a firm grip on their child’s life, keeping an eye on isolating or acting-out behaviors, school attendance, and increasing physical symptoms. Once the family is aware of how to identify and manage the fear, they can begin experiencing longer periods of relief.

Older children also can struggle with transitioning into school. Middle or high school students may feel insecure. Listening for distress, while offering understanding and acceptance, provides necessary support. The separation your child experiences when beginning college can be difficult as well. She will still need you, just in different ways.These transitions are our children’s developmental milestones.

Avoiding emotional risks is part of the problem, it’s where we lose human connection. Vulnerability can be too scary, ever at the edge of rejection, shame, not being enough: not being smart enough, thin enough, successful enough, beautiful enough, athletic enough ... anxiety takes hold, undermining any sense of stability. The dance of connection is never choreographed just right, nor does it nicely fit our expectations. Yet what kids and teens really crave is a strong connection. Their desire for simple family rituals is less dramatic, sometimes unspoken: “I wish my dad would wait with me at the bus” ... “I just wish we could read some stories at bedtime” ... “It would be great to have pizza and a movie instead of so many scheduled activities” .... When we see the once-stable foundation of family and society disappearing into “a ravenous mass culture,” these rituals that bring a sense of security make a lot of sense. Don’t let their cool facade fool you, because kids still need to feel the connection of adults.

“They need the undeniable evidence that we can be emotionally there for them, keeping them safe and providing them with the structure and guidance they crave in a frighteningly chaotic world.” — Dr. Ron Taffel

Please send me your questions.