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• Last updated: October 2, 2020

Podcast #621: The Causes and Cures of Childhood Anxiety

Everyone feels under greater psychic pressure these days, but we adults hope that children, who have always been seen as naturally resilient, have been spared the stress. Unfortunately, kids are increasingly experiencing mental health problems like anxiety at younger and younger ages, and this trend has been going on for years. 

My guest today wrote a cover article for The Atlantic on the causes and cures of this phenomenon. Her name is Kate Julian and we begin our conversation today by describing the extent to which problems like depression, anxiety, and even suicide have been on the rise among children, and how these issues correlate with continued problems later in life. We then talk about the possible causes behind the increase in childhood anxiety, and whether technology and social media are to blame. We then delve into the idea of how parents are perpetuating their children’s anxiety through their own anxiety and their willingness to make accommodations to keep their kids calm and happy. We get into the idea that getting your children comfortable with being uncomfortable can inoculate them against anxiety, and end our conversation with a discussion of whether more exposure to the news of a tumultuous world might actually make kids more resilient.

If reading this in an email, click the title of the post to listen to the show.

Show Highlights

  • When does anxiety in kids become a problem?
  • How does childhood anxiety affect later life?
  • How resilience is built up 
  • Short-term pain vs long-term gain 
  • Why are modern parents more anxious?
  • What is “accommodation”? How can it take over your life?
  • The earlier maturation of our kids 
  • How can you get your kids more comfortable with being uncomfortable?
  • Should we always shield kids from the bad things in the world?
  • How Kate’s parenting has changed since writing and researching this article 

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Everyone feels under greater psychic pressure these days, but we adults hope that children, who have always been seen as naturally resilient, have been spared the stress. Unfortunately, kids are increasingly experiencing mental health problems like anxiety at younger and younger ages, and this trend has been going on for years. My guest today wrote a cover article for The Atlantic on the causes and cures of this phenomenon. Her name is Kate Julian, and we began our conversation today by describing the extent to which problems like depression, anxiety, and even suicide have been on the rise among children, and how these issues correlate with continued problems later in life. We then talk about the possible causes behind the increase in childhood anxiety, and whether technology and social media are to blame. We then delve into the idea of how parents are perpetuating their children’s anxiety through their own anxiety and their willingness to make accommodations to keep their kids calm and happy. We then get into the idea that getting your children comfortable with being uncomfortable can inoculate them against anxiety. And we end our conversation with a discussion of whether more exposure to the news of a tumultuous world might actually make kids more resilient. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/childhoodanxiety.

Kate Julian, welcome back to the show.

Kate Julian: Thank you so much for having me back.

Brett McKay: So we had you on about a year and a half ago to talk about an Atlantic cover article you wrote called The Sex Recession, that’s episode 464 for those who wanna check that out. You got another Atlantic cover story that came out in May, called The Anxious Child. It’s all about this increasing rate of childhood anxiety, depression that we’re seeing in the west, in the United States. What kicked off your research into this topic?

Kate Julian: So this is actually a very personal issue for me. I have two kids who are six and 10, and their family history, my family history includes way more than its share of mental illness. Over the past 15 years, I’ve lost a family member to suicide and another one, I’ve watched struggle with profound psychiatric disability and addiction issues. And so, leaving aside journalism for a second, as a parent I really have no greater or deeper wish than that my kids not be afflicted with some of those problems. When my editors at The Atlantic asked me if I’d like to do something about childhood mental health, I was very excited for those personal reasons. And they were alarmed, as you just mentioned, by these numbers about suicide rates and depression rates and anxiety rates in kids really going up.

And I think the numbers about adolescents are more familiar, but as I started digging into this and trying to figure out where I would focus the piece, what surprised me the most was, first of all, that some of these really troubling markers are actually extending down to younger ages. So there’s been a doubling of the suicide rate among five to 11-year-olds. I mean, that’s a group of kids that we thought didn’t have predisposition to that problem. What was more exciting though to me was that the people I spoke to all said, a lot of this is actually really preventable. So if we look at how various mental health problems start, it’s anxiety disorders, and those start a lot earlier than we used to think. They start in childhood, like in elementary school age kids, and there’s something that we can do about it. So that was sort of the genesis for the piece.

Brett McKay: So let’s talk about what childhood anxiety and depression look like, ’cause you’re right, we typically, when we think about childhood mental health issues, we think about adolescents. You don’t think about five-year-olds having depression or even contemplating suicide. I mean, that statistic on suicide, that was probably the most gut wrenching thing that I read in your article, like the five-year-olds, like they would even think that that’s a thing, like I would never think that a five-year-old would know that you can just kill yourself if you’re feeling so terrible. So what does it look like? How does it usually manifest itself in young childhood, anxiety and depression?

Kate Julian: So the first thing I wanna say is that we do have to bear in mind that some of this is about increased awareness, right? So it may be, a friend of mine, a good friend of mine who’s a child psychiatrist, cautioned me on this. Some of these numbers with kids and with kids showing up at the ER may be a result of parents or teachers who are more likely to take something a kid says really seriously, and maybe even overreact, so I do wanna take that with a grain of salt. That being said, of the two things that we just talked about, depression and anxiety, depression remains among kids much less common than anxiety. It doesn’t mean that kids don’t suffer from depression, and some of the symptoms that they might manifest are not necessarily so different than those that adults might. So just all the usual things like lack of appetite, difficulty sleeping, sleeping too much, poor concentration, irritability, intense sensitivity, all those kinds of things. And I think as a parent where you would start to worry about whether there’s a problem is if it’s really starting to interfere with the kid’s life, and then you would wanna probably talk to somebody about it.

Anxiety, which is much more common in kids, we should sort of pause here too to say what we’re talking about, ’cause anxiety itself is not the problem. Everybody experiences anxiety. Anxiety is a normal universal human response to stress and worry. The problem becomes when, again, as with the depression, it starts to get in the way of your life, and that’s when professionals would say that it rises to the level of something that would be called a disorder. So where the kid is so anxious about something that they really can’t participate in normal activities, where they can’t go to school or they refuse to go to school, or they don’t wanna be separated from their parents and so forth. And what they found in the past 20 or so years when they’ve done some sort of longitudinal studies of mental health issues, and they take adults who suffer from depression, addiction, other issues, and they go back and they say, “So what was the first sign of a problem here?” They find that it was the type of anxiety more often than not, that I just mentioned, and that’s pretty striking.

Brett McKay: And you know something that you point out to in the article is that childhood anxiety often goes away on its own, but sometimes it doesn’t, and when it doesn’t, how does it continue to affect individuals into adulthood?

Kate Julian: So, I think what we’re talking about, again, is something where if you don’t learn to deal with something that’s causing you a lot of worry, your effort to avoid that worry or that feeling of anxiety kind of starts to run your life. So, an example that’s often used is like fear of dogs, right? So lots of kids are afraid of dogs, that’s not in itself necessarily such a big deal, but let’s say the kid’s really, really afraid of dogs, and let’s say further more that the kid doesn’t ever learn to deal with that fear, and then that fear kind of snowballs and becomes one of several things the kid’s really scared of. The kid may not learn to tolerate those feelings of intense worry and anxiety. And so they may start to, again, avoid things, whether it be socials or normal social relationships, they may later in life start doing things like self-medicating, and we know also that there’s a really strong close relationship between depression and anxiety, the anxiety tends over time in adolescence and adulthood to swing into a depression.

Brett McKay: And so we know that childhood anxiety has increased in the past 20 years, do we have any rates, statistics on percentage of children?

Kate Julian: Yeah, so I think in adolescents, we see that about a third of them suffer from anxiety that would be classified as a disorder over the course of adolescence. I think in terms of the rate of increase, it’s about a 17% increase in the past five years at last count, so I think that study was published in 2018. So, it’s a pretty short period of time to see that type of increase. And I think the other thing that I would note is the age of onset, that’s recently been determined. The median age of onset for anxiety disorders is 11, that’s really young, and for some anxiety disorder is such as phobia, which I was talking about, which is typically one of the third first things to pop up, it could be even earlier, that median age is seven.

Brett McKay: And I think we’ve all seen these articles published talking about the increasing rates of childhood anxiety, and then we always were like, “Why? What’s going on, why is this happening? So what factors do we know are contributing to the rise of mental illness amongst children?

Kate Julian: So, I think that a lot of the discussion has been focused recently on the question of whether it’s technology and phones and social media, The Atlantic a few years ago ran a piece by Jean Twenge, who’s a psychologist at Sandiego state, it was called, “Have smartphones destroyed a generation?” And there is something very appealing about that narrative or that answer, because if you look at when some of these rates started to really tick up, it’s right around the time that smartphones came out in 2008, and also around the time that social media, like Facebook became common and available to teenagers. The problem with that narrative is that we haven’t seen the same upticks in other countries that also have smartphones and social media across the board, and the more studies that have been done on this, the more it started to look like when you look at everybody together, the effect size is pretty small. So the best we can say is that when you look at all these studies together, it does look like there is probably a role of social media and smartphone use.

It probably depends a lot on how much you’re using of these things and how you’re using them, and the effect seems to be most pronounced for girls, for people who use a lot of social media as opposed to gaming, which seems to be less problematic, and people who have underlying issues with anxiety. There are a couple of other theories that I’d like to throw in here. One is that this stuff also coincides with pretty big changes in our school system, and then there’s been some interesting research that have looked at the roll out of school reform in the 2000s and tied that to ADHD diagnosis, like looking at it county by county and seeing a connection there. And another really interesting fact in my mind is that suicide rates and attempts in teens seem to be spiking now in the fall when school starts up again, whereas historically that used to be the case in the summer. So that’s sort of interesting clue that there might be something else going on beyond just the phones. And then sort of the final thing I would throw out there is this question of how we’re responding to things, are we making them better, are we making them worse by the way that we’re responding to our concerns about kids’ mental health?

Brett McKay: And that’s what you devote the lion share of your article, but on that idea of technology, I’ve been one of those people who’s like, “Oh yeah, it’s technology.” But as the research comes out, yeah you said it, so showing that kids who are already predisposed to anxiety or depression, they tend to use social media or technology in a way that’s not healthy. But kids who are doing fine, like social media doesn’t seem to have any effect and it’s weird, there’s other statistics show that kids who have no technology or access to social media, they’re actually… They do worse too, ’cause they’re cut off from all social connection with their peers.

Kate Julian: That is such a fascinating and good point. I’m so glad you raised that because I forgot to. So yeah, it’s very tempting to say like, “Oh well, I should just take the phone away from the kid or not give the phone to the kid.” And problem with that is, first of all, all the other kids have phones, you’re just gonna make your kid a pariah, ’cause the truth is like, that is how kids are transacting their social life, and we’re not really gonna change that. And they’re also some really interesting studies showing, as you suggest, like kids who actually text more do better in terms of depression, anxiety rates. I mean that kinda makes sense, they have more ready social support.

Brett McKay: So let’s talk about that third factor of how we’re responding, and you quote a therapist in the article that mental health crisis in children can be self-perpetuating, in what way? What’s going on there?

Kate Julian: So, I think there’s been a lot of awareness and concern about these things, but I think a lot of us, and certainly I would be in this category until very recently, don’t actually know sort of what anxiety is. And so we hear that word and we think, anxiety bad, kids are having problems with anxiety, must shield child from anxiety. And what that tends to translate into is stuff that actually makes the problem worse. So as I was saying before, if what we know from a huge body of research, and I would pause here to say anxiety turns out to be like the topic that is the most understood in mental health at this point, there’s a ton of research on it, and it’s really solid. So if we know that the hallmark of anxiety is avoidance, of the thing that’s freaking you out.

And that the way to treat that, which we can get into more detail about, is to expose yourself to that thing and essentially build up resilience to it. What happens if your parents are instead trying to shelter you from feelings of discomfort or from difficult experiences, the very things that would sort of allow you to build up the emotional muscle that you need to tolerate life’s difficulties? So, if you are a kid who’s really shy and you have a lot of anxiety around being called on by the teacher, and your mom has heard that anxiety is a bad thing and there’s a big problem with anxiety, maybe your mom is gonna do something like call the teacher, email the teacher, and say, “Please don’t call on Lila. It’s really upsetting her.” So that seems like a good short-term solution, but it doesn’t help Lila in the long-term. A bunch of people I talk to kept saying versions of the same thing, which was, we need to think about how short-term gains are leading to long-term pain. Okay, in therapy, they often like to say the reversed, short-term pain can lead to long-term gains. In other words, dealing with something unpleasant in the here and now can help you deal with it better in the long-term. And it seems like we’ve kind of flipped that logic on its head and we’re doing something with the best of intentions, this keeping kids from having to kinda grapple with stuff that they need to learn.

Brett McKay: Oh yeah. So the thing that stuck out for me when you were talking about this idea of childhood mental health is sort of self-perpetuated. It sounds like parents’ anxiety about their kids is perpetuating their kids’ anxiety in a weird way. So it’s like, the parents, they’re really anxious about their kids. Are they gonna do well in college? Are they gonna get to the college they need? Are they feeling alright? And because of that, they start to over-parent and the kids feel that. It rubs off on the kids.

Kate Julian: So I have so many things to say about this. I don’t know where to start. Exactly. One thing I’ll note, just quickly, we know that anxiety tends to travel in families and there’s a genetic component to that, but there’s also, as you say, a parenting style component to that, right? And certainly, some of the culture that we’re living in for some families right now, where academic achievement seems to have really high stakes in terms of your long-term prospects is part of it. I also think though, that there’s something more fundamental going on. I recently had a conversation with Perry Class, who’s a prominent pediatrician who also writes about sort of the history of kids and mental health, and she made a really interesting point. She talked about how she’d been thinking herself about this mystery and how sort of looking back to her grandmother’s era, she sort of said to me, “Look, my grandmother as a parent had so much more to be anxious about than we do,” right?

In her time, if you went around a room of parents, most people would have either had the experience of having lost a child or having lost a sibling. And yet, as childhood has become so much safer, as we’ve really made strides on things like child mortality, parents are more fearful. And she was like, “Why is that? Why, at this moment, my grandmother, if there was a sore throat had to worry that that could be Scarlet Fever and that that could kill her kid, we don’t live with that level of threat in our day-to-day life, and yet we seem to be more anxious?”

And she said, “I think that as things got safer, we kept kind of raising the safety bar and we kept looking forward to the next thing and the next thing that we could do to keep kids safer. And that’s all great, but first it’s SIDS, then it’s bike helmets, then it’s car seats, and this all leads to this kind of tricky world view that if something bad happens, it’s your fault.” Right? As a parent in her grandmother’s age, she was saying, if a kid got hurt in the street, nobody said, “That’s the parent’s fault.” But now if a kid gets hurt, we tend to say, “Was she wearing a helmet? Was she in a car seat?” We want everything to be preventable, and that kind of adds up to this, if you’re a parent, kind of view, that it’s all on you. And I think that’s part of this too.

Brett McKay: Oh, yeah. And what’s tough too, is parents, I think, are aware of this idea of helicopter parenting, that it’s not good, it’s not healthy for their kids, but they still struggle with stop doing it. It’s hard not to helicopter parent.

Kate Julian: Yeah. I think there’s a part of this guilt factor too and this is a bit hard to talk about, but in one of the programs that I look at a lot in the piece, it seemed like… I’m gonna perhaps regret saying this, it did seem like it was something that moms tended to do more than dads, and I think as a working mom and other people that I spoke to, sounded similar notes. That if you have relatively limited time with your kid on a day-to-day basis, you don’t necessarily want at bed time, at dinner time, at these other times when conflicts and issues come up, to be having a knock-down drag-out fight about whether the kid can go to sleep by themselves. You just wanna make it work.

Brett McKay: Yeah, you want it to be pleasant, ’cause you only have that one at a time, you wanted to be… But you kind of highlighted some accommodations. We talked about one, if a kid’s shy, you tell the teacher don’t call on the kid, but you got pretty personal with some people and talk about some of the really… When someone say extreme accommodations about, their kids only eat a certain type of food and that’s the only food they’re ever gonna eat.

Kate Julian: Yeah, so let me explain this word accommodation, which was new to me at least. This is a word that this guy, Eli Leibowitz, particularly, who I profile on the piece, he’s a psychologist at Yale’s Child Study Center, who started a program that is working to help kid anxiety by treating or working with the parents directly rather than the kid, and it’s super successful. And he likes to use this concept of accommodations. Accommodations are, like you said, the kind of behavior I was talking about with the calling on in school, sort of preventing the kid from having to deal with something. And it’s a nice term ’cause it kind of pre-supposes that whatever the parent is doing is in response to something that already exists. The anxiety is already there, the parent didn’t cause the anxiety, they’re just making it worse by trying to kind of cushion or bubble wrap the kid.

I’ll mention a couple of examples that seems sort of, especially vivid. One had to do with a kid who had eating issues that were so intense that they rose to the level of an anxiety disorder. This child who was five or six when started to get treatment at the Yale Child Study Center, had his parents calculated over three years eating literally thousands of Turkey loaf meals. This kid basically ate nothing but dry Cheerios for breakfast, and Turkey loaf for lunch and dinner. And his parents were so down to earth, and nice, and lovely, I really enjoyed talking to them, you would have too, they had a great sense of humor. They had gotten into this really weird situation where the kid was in the NICU to begin with, and had some feeding issues, and by the time that he he’d did started eating solid food, they were very, very, concerned about keeping him nourished. And so when he expressed a preference for this food and then a real distaste that later morphed into fear of other foods, they just kept indulging it and kept indulging it.

And it got so bad that they actually needed somebody to help walk them through kind of how to get out of this trap. And in their case, going back to the point about rushed meal times and busy pace of everybody’s lives, a part of the solution was that they needed to start eating dinner with their kid, so that he was being exposed to a pretty normal range of food. Because I think the point is, like, if they’d had to eat turkey loaf themselves 3000 times whatever it was, this never would have happened. But we get into these funny patterns just to get through the day.

Brett McKay: Right, so you’re accommodating your kid so you can kind of just get through the day.

Kate Julian: Yeah.

Brett McKay: But as you said the research shows as you do that you just make the anxiety worse, because the way you overcome the anxiety is confronting and sort of learning how to manage the feelings of discomfort.

Kate Julian: Yeah, and the research on this idea, this accomodating idea, is really pretty clear and overwhelming. Almost all parents of anxious kids engage in this kind of behavior, so it’s universal virtually. And the more they do it, the worse the anxiety tends to be and the longer it tends to last. And you know the results they’re having with this program that they’ve developed which is called Space are really pretty remarkable, and it actually seems to be as effective as any other treatment for anxiety and maybe more so moreso, and they’ve published some good solid studies on this.

Brett McKay: Another thing you highlight this is the way we parent and wanting to accommodate, and make sure our kids feel comfortable, and they’re not feeling any discomfort, but also at the same time we get this thing where we also want them to mature faster than normal: Like we want them to be able to read when they’re in pre-school, but we still we accommodate them and kind of want to keep them innocent. I mean what are some examples of that where you have kids who are both mature, more mature and more infantile than children in previous generations?

Kate Julian: Yeah, this is something that I just have noticed as a parent. I think I mentioned that at the beginning I’ve got a six-year-old and a 10-year-old. And there’s been a fair amount of attention to how preschool in a lot of places has gotten more academic in recent years and this is a part of the downward trend following like kindergarten becoming the new first grade or the new second grade. So there is all this early literacy pretty academic content in a lot of preschools now where, like you said, four-year-olds are being taught to read. And leaving aside the question of whether that’s developmentally appropriate, I don’t think that it is, it’s a really weird contrast with the fact that, for example, kids are being toilet-trained later and later, like it’s really not uncommon at this point to see a four-year-old still wearing pull-ups.

And I don’t remember the numbers off the top of my head, I have them in the piece, but if you look at toilet training trends over the past several decades, it’s pretty remarkable. It used to be that almost all kids were toilet trained around the age of two. And now that’s ticked up by something like a year. And I think it’s an example of one of these things that seems like it’s friendly to the kid, to just not push things. I know as a parent that it’s an example of something that seems friendly to the parent, it’s just like one of those things that nobody wants to deal with. We’re all rushing. I mentioned in the piece that in my case we had done one of these potty training boot camps, where you’re supposed to spend the a whole weekend on the thing, and a bunch of my friends were like, “That’s insane. How am I ever going to clear a weekend to do nothing but this?” But over time, it adds up to be more time for the parents of course. And it does give you this funny situation where we’re sort of asking our kids to do too much and sort of not enough at the same time.

Another example of this, that has occurred to me as I watched the sort of downward trend in age of smartphone adoption or the age at which we’re giving getting kids smartphones which has continued to trend downward, is we’ve got this situation where a lot of fourth-graders have smartphones. My daughter’s a fourth-grader. And yet, a lot of fourth-graders, according to parents I know and according to kids in her class, still believe in Santa Claus. And there’s just a very weird contradiction here, right? Like we’re babying our kids so much on the one hand, and then we’re giving them a tool that we know has good sides like we were saying before with regard to the texting, but it also has some kind of intense sides, like you’re giving your kid a tool with which they could be watching PornHub. You’re giving your kid a tool by which they can be cyber-bullied in a pretty intense way that never lets up.

I don’t exactly know what to make of that contradiction, but I do know that by the time kids get to high school, it seems like it’s a really bad combination right, where you have kids who just haven’t learned certain basic life skills, and yet they have to deal with this really intense academic pressure. I don’t think that’s good.

Brett McKay: No, yeah. So we talked about… So the way the research shows that you can treat this anxiety early by just exposing kids to their discomforts, and this idea of you have to let the kids fail and struggle in the short term for things to be better in the long term. And a lot of the experts you talk to, it’s important for kids to feel uncomfortable. What are some healthy ways that you can get your kids to feel or get your kids to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Kate Julian: Yeah, and I worry sometimes when I’m talking about this and when I wrote about this, that I sound like I’m being completely sadistic. And I really hope that’s not the case. It was certainly my impression when I was talking to some of these people at the beginning that I thought, “Why are you talking about discomfort so much?” One of the therapists I spoke to very memorably said, “Look, when I start dealing with a parent of a kid who’s got big anxiety issues, this is one of the first things I ask them, How does your kid do with being uncomfortably hot? How does your kid do with being uncomfortably cold? How does your kid do with being really hungry?” And this is not to suggest that we need to subject our kids to extreme heat or hunger or anything like that. But when you start to kind of step back and think, “Well, why are kids having more trouble with these things?” If you look at some differences between, say, my childhood and the childhood of most kids today, there are some kind of intriguing clues of things that could factor in here.

A couple of generations ago almost all kids got themselves to school, whether walking or biking. Now, almost none do. There are a variety of reasons for that, but I can definitely remember as a kid that walking to school in uncomfortably warm and cold weather taught you something. It wasn’t necessarily very pleasant, but you learned [27:42] ____. There’s been a really striking number decline in the number of kids who have chores to do. One study I looked at said something like, “72% of parents today say they had chores growing up and 27% are giving their kids chores now.” There’s been a similar decline in jobs among adolescents, whether it’s after school jobs or summer jobs. I think what, to me, unites all of these things is not necessarily, “Oh, these things are inherently virtuous.” We can debate that. But they do all give you some experience doing unpleasant and sometimes uncomfortable things. And so with my own kids I’ve started to kind of double down on the chores and tried to slow down on being so so quick to jump in and prevent very minor physical discomfort. Yeah.

Brett McKay: Yeah, no. I experienced that with my sons. They finally started baseball here in Oklahoma. They opened that up, and usually baseball is in the spring where it’s pleasant. Now in Oklahoma, it was 97 degrees.

Kate Julian: Oh, god.

Brett McKay: And he was having practice, and he’s like, “Oh, it’s so hot.” I’m like, “I know. Just drink lots of water. You’ll be okay.” And he seemed to do fine, and I was like, “This is good for him.”

Kate Julian: Yeah.

Brett McKay: The other bit you talk about where parents try alleviate the discomfort of kids is like, whenever your kid has a leg ache or an arm ache…It’s like, “I want Tylenol.” Give him Acetaminophen right away.

Kate Julian: Yeah, I am so guilty of this.

Brett McKay: Yeah. No. Yeah.

Kate Julian: So guilty of this. This was one of the things I thought about when I was working on this, is I looked in the medicine cabinet and I’m like, “Oh my God, I have kids Advil and kids Tylenol in three different flavors.” So not only am I like, “Oh, your leg hurts, let’s give you some medicine, but which flavour would you like?”

Brett McKay: Right. No, yeah, “I want that flavor.” Now, we’ve had that. I’ve had that debate in our household as well. And when I was a kid, my mom was just like… I think that what she did was like, “Oh yeah, here, I’ll break up some aspirin and put it in some water and in a spoon,” and it tasted disgusting.

Kate Julian: Yes. Totally.

Brett McKay: I never did that. I was like, “I’ll suffer the leg hurt.”

Kate Julian: Tough this out.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I’ll tough this one out. So, yeah, there’s ways that parents can have their kids be uncomfortable and healthy, safe ways. It doesn’t mean you have to take your kid through boot camp or whatever. But just let them get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Kate Julian: Yeah. In our house we’ve been doing more hikes, for example. That’s partially just the fact that the six-year-old is now six and is at a more practical age for doing that. But yeah, getting your feet like good and tired, that’s not a bad thing.

Brett McKay: Right. Yeah, and then when they start complaining, just like, “Oh, sorry. You’re gonna be fine. You’re gonna be okay.” But another way was talking about how we preserve our child’s innocence is that we often keep them from hard topics, media, news, etcetera. And it comes from a good place, you want your children to have their childhood, but do you think that sorta sheltering them from what’s going on in the world can actually help increase the feelings of anxiety?

Kate Julian: Yeah, I think that it can. So, in the article I dealt with this question really briefly near the end. I talked about some research that I’d come across as I was working on the piece about how kids responded to the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in the San Francisco area. And this research caught my eye ’cause I was 11 and lived in that area at the time and was super shaken up by the earthquake. I remember it happened the same year that my parents split up. And the combination of those two things, their marriage breaking up and the realization that on a random Tuesday afternoon the ground could start shaking really, really hard with no warning and kill a lot of people was pretty destabilizing. And what this pediatrician who looked into kids’ responses to the earthquake found, and he sort of studied this a bunch of different ways, but one of the more vivid ways is by having kids draw pictures afterwards of the earthquake.

He found that the ones weirdly kinda counterintuitively who drew darker pictures of the earthquake, ones that featured death and destruction, actually did better in the months ahead in terms of their health. Their physical health, signs that their body was under stress and inflammation were lower than the kids who drew really happy sunny, like, “All is good” pictures. And I started to wonder why this might be. And I looked into this some more actually after my article came out, because the COVID landscape made me really quite curious about how we should be talking to kids about what’s going on right now. And there are a few things that were really striking. First, there’s a ton of research that’s come out in the past, like 20 years, basically since 9-11, looking at what kids know and notice about what’s going on.

With regard to disasters, emergencies, really big traumatic things that may happen in the world around them. So the upshot of all of this is one, media exposure is not really a great way for them to get information, that’s probably not a surprise, right. This sitting around watching 24/7 cable news about this or that disaster freaks kids out in an unhelpful way. What was more surprising and more interesting to me though was that the opposite extreme was also true, that is kids whose parents tried to totally shield them from what was going on and didn’t talk to them about it and didn’t tell them what was going on, also did really badly. A specific example of this is the Boston Marathon bombing in the Boston area, right after that kids were on lockdown for, I think the better part of a week and school was cancelled and there was sort of similar to COVID, the sense that going outside of the house was unsafe, and the kids whose parents didn’t talk to them, had the worst mental health outcomes.

I could go on and on about this ’cause it’s fascinating stuff, but the upshot of that and some other research that looked at kids whose parents have terminal illnesses or kids who have terminal illness, and how talking to them or not talking to them affects them. The bottom line is, kids notice a ton, like whether or not we tell them what’s going on, they know that something is wrong. And what also emerges that if we don’t talk to them, they come up with explanations for what’s going on, especially when they’re younger and they’re very egocentric and they’re pro into what they call magical thinking, they come up with explanations for what’s going on, they’re a lot worse than reality. So in the case of mom is sick and mom isn’t telling you that she’s sick, the kid thinks there’s something wrong with mom that I caused, literally, there’s a ton of evidence for this. So I think we have to talk to kids. I’m curious, so if I may ask you a question, how are you dealing with that, with your kids in this time?

Brett McKay: Yeah. So we’ve been talking to him about the COVID thing, and then also what’s going on right now with the protest and the social unrests what’s going on, and we had a conversation. Every week we have a family meeting and we sat down with the kids, they’re seeing this stuff on the news, picking it up, and we had to talk to them. You can’t get too deep with the kids, with a six-year-old about with the racial history of the United States. We asked, “Do you guys know what race is?” And my daughter’s like, “You mean running?” And we’re like… She’s six. And you’re like, “Oh, man. I’m like, I’m about to spoil. I’m about to take her out of the garden, give her the fruit of knowledge of good and evil.” But yeah, we’re trying to have that conversation and what’s going on, how it’s complicated and it’s hard, and they seem to get it and then they don’t seem too keen on it, she’s like, “Okay,” and then just move on and do something else.

Kate Julian: It’s so tricky with this age, ’cause with my six-year-old at the beginning of the COVID stuff, I tried to have him watch some kid video that was supposed to be good online sort of explaining what COVID was and why you should wash your hands and this, that, and the other, and he acted completely bored and not interested. And I kept after that saying, do you wanna talk about it? Do you have any questions? This is pretty weird. We’re not going to school. We’re not going to work. And he would always say, “No, no, no.” And then we had him keep a little diary for the first few weeks when our distance learning wasn’t up and running, and I was just trying to get them to work on his handwriting a little bit. And I was like, “Write a sentence every day about what you did that day so that you can remember this strange time.”

And at first the sentences were so just kind of banal like I had a ham sandwich today, I played touch football with Clara today. And then one of the days he wrote today I’m alive, and I used that as an opening to talk to him some more, and he was very kind of shy about it, that clearly he actually was worried about what was going on to a much more profound extent than I had realized. So that was interesting to me. One of the tricky things about all this research is with a slightly older kid, like my 10-year-old, you’re like, “Well, they’re not supposed to be watching TV, but you’re supposed to be talking to them about it.” And that puts a lot of burden on parents. It does. So that’s a tricky thing.

Brett McKay: No, I was looking at my childhood. My dad, when he came home from work, he worked all day, so he’d sit and watch the the nightly news with Dan Rather and then he’d watch, whatever, I don’t know, Miami Vice. And so this cop shows and as a kid, you only had one TV now, and so you had to watch that too if you wanted to watch TV. And so I feel like I, maybe I’m just sort of remembering my childhood that I was more mature than my kids are, but maybe I am, ’cause my kids with the way their media consumption is, they just watch their favorite YouTube channel, that’s it, and they’re never exposed to anything else.

Kate Julian: I think that is such an interesting point and I keep wondering about this. Part of it is that we do have is a family version of filter bubbles at large. We’re all watching and reading different things, and I don’t know exactly what to make of it, is it a good thing or a bad thing, but there has been this sort of uptake in news that’s aimed specifically at kids recently, some of it post COVID. So Lester Holt has an NBC News for kids thing that I watched recently that was pretty good. Some newspapers, if anybody still gets the newspaper, are producing kids sections. There were a couple of other examples that occured to me that I’m forgetting right now of things that I’d seen recently, this idea that there should be special news just for kids. And I have kind of mixed feelings about it, I think it’s definitely better than kids not consuming any news, but I do kind of feel like having the news in the background Dan Rather style was a good thing in some ways. In other words, the parents and the kids are kind of both consuming stuff even passively, and there’s just an opportunity for chatting there, I think.

You also mentioned talking to them about George Floyd, and protests and police violence and this whole series of things, and I think that’s really tricky too. I watched Sesame Street did like a CNN Town Hall on Saturday, and I tried to watch that with my 6-year-old, and it wasn’t as great as I wanted it to be. It’s just tricky. I will say though, and this just underscores what I was mentioning before. Again, there’s research on what happens when white parents specifically don’t talk to their kids about race, and it just goes back to this point that kids pick up on stuff and they may draw their own conclusions.

There was a study out of University of Texas that was written about in this book, NurtureShock, by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman maybe 10 or 12 years ago. And these parents of similar age kids to your 6-year-old and my 6-year-old, all said, “We don’t ever talk about race ’cause we wanna promote color blindness and we wanna promote the idea that everybody’s the same. We don’t wanna even introduce that as a category.” And what they found with the kids though, is that that’s not what the kids took away from it, the kids took away from it something else, which is like, “Huh,” when the researchers asked them, “What do your parents think of black people? Are black people nice?” They had come to the conclusion that because their parents didn’t have black friends, that black people must not be nice. So it’s tricky, it’s tricky and I haven’t by any means figured out the answer, but I’m struggling with it.

Brett McKay: So you mentioned some ways that your own parenting has changed after researching and writing this article, there’s more chores, taking more hikes. Any other ways your own parenting has changed as a result of this article?

Kate Julian: Yeah, so going back to that one program that I was talking to, talking about rather out of Yale, the space program that works with the parents to get them to stop doing these accommodations. There’s an aspect of that program that I didn’t highlight, which has been really key to how I’ve changed things. The program’s acronym SPACE stands for Supportive Parenting, Anxiety something or other, something or other. And the supportive part is really key. What they have found and observed is that parents tend to swing between one extreme and the other, and often even within a family, one parent will be the super accommodating one, often the mom, and one parent, maybe more often the dad, if there’s dad, will be more the kind of tough love guy. And what tends to work best is something in the middle where you’re not accommodating, but you are providing comfort to the kid and expressing empathy and all that. And it sounds basic, but I think sometimes we do tend to go to one extreme or the other.

So I personally have been trying to think, “Okay, I’m gonna stop trying to prevent discomfort so much, but I might be more proactive about just old-fashioned comfort.” And it sounds so silly when I say it. But, again, a child psychiatrist friend I was talking to made the same point and I thought it was really profound. We don’t somehow at this moment always think that just providing comfort is enough, we think we gotta fix the problem, answer the question, know the answers, have a solution. And she’s like, “That’s really not what parenting used to be, and it’s really not what parenting probably should be.” Sometimes it’s just enough to say, “I’m sorry that bad things happen, that stinks.” Depending on the age of kid and the kid, “Let’s just cuddle for a while,” or, “Let’s just talk about it and just agree that it sucks what happened.” And so, I’ve been trying to do more of that as opposed to, “Let me charge in and fix it.” Not prevent the discomfort, but provide some comfort.

Brett McKay: Well, Kate, where can people go and learn more about the article and your work?

Kate Julian: Yeah, so if you wanna check out the article, you can find it by looking at my Twitter handle, which is Kate Julian, just @katejulian. Or if you go to The Atlantic’s website and search for Anxious Child, it should come right up.

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Kate Julian, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Kate Julian: It’s been so nice talking to you. Thanks again for having me back.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Kate Julian. She’s a writer at The Atlantic, and we talked about her cover article at The Atlantic called, What Happened to American Childhood? Check it out, it’s available at theatlantic.com. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/childhoodanxiety, where you can find links to resources and where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the AoM podcast. Check out our website at artofmanliness.com, where you can find our podcast archives, as well as thousands of articles we’ve written over the years about pretty much anything you can think of. And if you like to enjoy ad-free episodes of the AoM podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to stitcherpremium.com to sign up. Use code, manliness, and check out for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app in Android or iOS, and you can start enjoying ad-free episodes of the AoM podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate it if you take one minute to give us review on Apple Podcast or Stitcher. If you’ve done that already, please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay, reminding you not only listen to the AoM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.

 

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