I'm usually fairly skeptical about any research study that concludes that Americans are either happier or unhappier or more or less certain of themselves than they were 50 years ago. While any of these statements might be true, they are practically impossible to prove scientifically. Still, I was struck by a report that appeared last week in the American Psychological Association's Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, comparing decades' worth of scores on tests that measure the level of an individual's day-to-day anxiety. The study's author, research psychologist Jean Twenge of Case Western Reserve University, concluded that today's children are significantly more anxious than their counterparts in the 1950s. In fact, her analysis showed, normal children ages 9 to 17 exhibit a higher level of anxiety today than children who were treated for psychiatric disorders 50 years ago.
The report is far from perfect. Even though the tests were standardized, they consist basically of what investigators call "self-reports," which are more susceptible to social pressure than, say, viral-antibody counts. It's also easier to talk about being "stressed out" in today's pop-psychology culture than it was when Dwight Eisenhower was President. Yet Twenge's conclusions echo the concerns of many parents, teachers and pediatricians. "I think children are more anxious," says Dr. Thomas McInerny, professor of pediatrics at the University of Rochester. "Clinicians, pediatricians, psychologists--we're all seeing more of it."
Why are today's kids so stressed? Twenge cites two main culprits: increasing physical isolation--brought on by high divorce rates and less involvement in community, among other things--and a growing perception that the world is a more dangerous place. This latter point might seem laughable to anyone who remembers the Cuban missile crisis or the Vietnam War. But when it comes to emotions, perceptions often loom larger than reality.
Given that we can't turn the clock back, (and who would want to?), adults can still do plenty to help the next generation cope.
At the top of the list is nurturing a better appreciation of the limits of individualism. No child is an island, to paraphrase the poet. Strengthening social ties helps build communities and protect individuals against stress.
To help kids build stronger connections with others, you can pull the plug on TVs and computers. Your family will thank you later. They will have more time for face-to-face relationships, and they will get more sleep.
Limit the amount of virtual violence your children are exposed to. It's not just video games and movies; children see a lot of murder and mayhem on the local news.
Don't share all your worries with your children, particularly the youngest ones. No matter how precocious they seem, they are not psychologically equipped to deal with both your problems and theirs.
Keep your expectations for your children reasonable. Many highly successful people never attended Harvard or Yale.
Make exercise part of your daily routine. It will help you cope with your own anxieties and provide a good model for your kids. Sometimes anxiety is unavoidable. But it doesn't have to ruin your life.