Younger kids exhibiting more signs of mental distress
Editor's note: This is part one of a series focusing on the pressures facing Darien's adolescents.
A parent's desire to constantly please his or her children is having a detrimental effect, according to some experts. By overly protecting children and catering to their every whim, today's kids don't have the skills to handle uncomfortable situations and the stress is causing mental health issues at younger ages than ever before, experts say.
Silver Hill Hospital Social Worker David Kelly said he is seeing more kids suffering from mental health issues for a variety of reasons. Social media is usually the first that comes to mind, since it prevents kids from getting even a short respite from bullies. But another reason, Kelly said, is because some parents shelter their children from uncomfortable situations, preventing the kids from leaning how to react when they find themselves unhappy or when things don't go their way.
"I sometimes refer to the youth of today as tea cups because they are so delicate," Kelly said. "At some point, parents decided they needed to make sure the kids were happy all the time and the kids have lost the practice of being uncomfortable."
Kelly said he has seen situations where kids will threaten to harm themselves as a bargaining chip and the parent will acquiesce.
He said the decision for all kids who participate in sports, no matter how successful their team was, to get a trophy has also contributed to a lack of coping skills because kids don't experience what it's like to lose. An incident occurred in New Canaan in November after three youth football coaches burned some of the third place trophies their players received. The coaches later apologized and resigned from their positions after parents expressed concerns about the messages being sent to their kids. The coaches told parents they intended the trophy burning event to be used as motivational tool to encourage the players to be even better during the next season, but admitted the event was in bad taste.
However, even though mental health problems are becoming more prevalent in Fairfield County, the problem is not just a local one, Kelly said.
"This isn't just a problem in Fairfield County," he said. "I just think people in Fairfield County are a little more psychologically savvy and these problems are being identified sooner."
Darien Pediatrician John Dubaz said he is seeing kids as young as 8 or 9 who require anti-anxiety medications because they are under so much stress.
"I think pediatrics is becoming more about treating mental health and less about treating infectious diseases now," Dubaz said. "We're starting to see issues as early as 8 or 9 or 10 years old and that is something that is definitely new."
Kids are also experiencing stress from their parents who may be struggling due to the economy and other problems, Kelly said. Parents may not even be aware that they are transferring some of that stress to other members of the household.
"I think it's impossible for parents to not transfer stress to their kids," he said.
As a result of the mental health issues manifesting in elementary through high school students, the Board of Education kept a funding request for a full-time social worker and psychologist in the 2012-2013 budget -- a step Kelly feels will have a positive impact on students.
"I think it should be more effective than what they have now, which is nothing. Granted, there are thousands of kids, but maybe some of them will get more identification at an earlier stage," Kelly said.
Even though more students seem to be struggling to balance school, sports and home life pressures, Kelly said the pressure they are under isn't new, it's just there is more of it as the world becomes more competitive.
"These students can't manage the pressure because they can't handle being uncomfortable. A piece of adolescence is about being uncomfortable," he said.
Depot Program Director Janice Marzano said she has seen a number of kids she's referred to Silver Hill Hospital for treatment. She feels there are two major contributors to why more and more students are suffering from mental health issues.
"There are a large number of kids who have this attitude of entitlement and many of the parents go along with it," she said. "I've seen parents who say they won't let their kids drink while the kids are in middle school but by the time they get to high school, they've given up the fight."
The second issue Marzano addressed was the lack of time for kids to just enjoy their childhoods.
"No one lets kids just be kids anymore. There's too much pressure in these towns and as technology improves, there's even more pressure."
Dubaz said society has become more competitive in recent years which is contributing to stress, and that's not trend he sees changing anytime soon.
There are ways to tell him a child is under too much pressure because they begin exhibiting certain physical symptoms, Dubaz said.
"There can be times where a child doesn't want to go to school because they are complaining of abdominal pain or a headache but they feel fine after school or on the weekends," Dubaz said. "In those situations, we find out there are things that are stressing them out and we can try to develop strategies with the parents to acknowledge the complaints without invalidating them."
Kelly also recommended parents make an effort to have more meals together and also make sure kids aren't bringing their cell phones or other devices into their bedrooms at night.
"Bedrooms should be for sleeping only," he said.
"If kids are experiencing a great deal of stress they should seek out an adult who they can talk to and they shouldn't be afraid to let people know if they are sad," Kelly said.
"Kids should tell adults because even though they have friends who want to help, they aren't equipped to handle that responsibility," he said.
Kelly said kids should also have free time in addition to their structured activities. Getting at least nine to eleven hours of sleep, especially for high school students, is important because a lack of sleep can manifest as a psychological disorder.
"Kids should have the opportunity to be kids," he said.
Paresh Jha contributed reporting to this story
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