People generally hope that their child will have a happy, healthy life. Of course, there will be challenges along the way, but being a child should be full of fun and wonder, right? As I recount my childhood, I remember endless days outdoors, bike rides, a strong community and many friends in my neighbourhood that played together day after day. As I look upon today’s children, I do not see this same type of lifestyle. I see children rushed from one activity to the next and spending excess amounts of time on computers and mobile devices. Gone are the days that children get to enjoy long periods of free play and time to explore their thoughts and ideas. What is the cost of these changes to our children?
I have worked in the childcare field for 17 years. In those years, I have had a front row seat to the decline in children’s mental health. I have always believed that some of the aforementioned lifestyle changes have been a large contributor to this change. When I was young, I do not remember any of my friends in middle childhood struggling with mental health disorders. Was this because we had the freedom that we did or maybe because people were not as aware of these issues back then? Could it be that we are more aware because of the overuse of social media?
One study suggests that mental health issues observed in Canadian children and youth have remained relatively stable between the periods of 1994/1995 and 2008/2009, with the exception of hyperactivity which has increased by 0.16% during these two periods (McMartin, Kingsbury, Dykxhoorn & Colman, 2014).
In contrast, an online article written by Dr. Peter Gray (Psychology Today, 2010) alludes to the decline in mental health in children. In his article, he talks about how anxiety and depression may be a result of the lack of control a person has over their life. This has been backed up by participant feedback via the “Rotter’s Scale” and “Internal-External Locus of Control Scale”. The Internal-External Locus of Control Scale was a tool created in 1950 by Julien Rotter. The survey has 23 questions, from which a participant can choose answers that alternate between “controlled by the person” and “controlled by circumstances outside of the person”. The theory being that participants who scored higher on the internal questions would have a more successful life. If the score leaned more toward the external side, that person was in greater danger of facing mental health challenges and general adversity in their life. In 2002, they began to notice that the results from this test were beginning to lean more toward external. The results suggested that children between the ages of 9-14 are feeling more like their lives are controlled by external circumstances in which they have no control.
So what has caused the shift from internal control to external control? In the book “Free Range Kids” written by Lenore Skenazy, she discusses how parents have become overly involved in their children’s lives and urges families to start to look at their parenting style. She makes the recommendation to reduce helicopter parenting and increase the amount of freedom children have. Where can we give our children the opportunity to make their own decisions? Can we just allow them to be kids and avoid over scheduling them in various activities?
When I talk to many adults about this issue, a common response is, “they are just children, what do they have to be anxious or stressed about?” Well, how about a disruptive family life, poor grades in school, the daily news, poor sleep, developmental delays, fitting in with peers, social media, parental pressure, being overweight, losing a loved one or pet, severe trauma, bullying, not having their daily needs met and just not having time to be a kid. This only begins to touch on the myriad of things a typical child may deal with in our current society.
According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, there are approximately 1.2 million Canadian children and youth experiencing a mental illness and only 20% of them will receive treatment they need. Furthermore, in a 2011 report published by the World Health Organization, it has been noted that by 2030, depression will likely be the leading cause of disease burden around the world.
How can we provide support in shifting some of these trends?
While some studies show that mental health stays relatively the same in children over a period, others clearly disagree. Through observation, I have seen and felt a huge difference over the past 17 years. Children today are having more trouble focusing on tasks, their attention span is short and there are many behaviour problems. Parents are coming to me desperate for answers and the systems in place that are suppose to help them are failing them. It can take up to 10 years to resolve these types of issues in the Canadian health care system. While I see various agencies trying to make a difference, we have a long way to go to help children and people as a whole in this area. Our actions toward the children in our lives shape who they are. Spend your days building them up and giving them the skills they need to stand in their power.