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  • Márcia Fervienza

Anxiety in kids and teens in America: where does the problem actually start?

About two months ago I started having problems with my son at his daycare. He is 3 and he started getting desperate about the idea of going to school. Initially we thought it was because I was not working full-time anymore and he wanted to stay home with mommy. We believed that, once we dropped him off, he would be ok. But at the end of every day when we went to pick him and asked him if he liked his day, he would say no. Things continued to escalate to the point where he couldn’t see daddy getting dressed in the morning that he would start crying and hiding around the house begging not to be taken to school. Not to mention that when we had to take him out in the morning for some other reason, he would cry all the way to wherever we were going until he finally understood we were not taking him to school. At this point, we decided to talk to his teacher and the director at the school.

Upon our meeting with them, we found out that his class structure had changed a couple of months ago, and that they went from learning through play to having more structured lesson time, where they had to sit and work. The reason being, they said, because they are being prepared for pre-school (that starts at 4). They said it was a common behavior with every child who goes through this transition and that they eventually adjust.

That just seemed off to me. Now, to be perfectly clear on who is evaluating this: I am Brazilian, my husband is Argentinean, and we have never learned how to read or write before we were 6 (the age that our preschool actually starts in our home countries). At age 3, our son already can count to 10, knows the colors, knows the letters of the alphabet, weather, etc., all of which was learned through play. But I can’t, for the life of me, understand why 3-year-old children have to learn in a formal and structured way if when taught through play they progress and do well.

That’s when the director helped us understand the background: this is actually something parents require and look for! They want their children to be reading and writing as early as possible. For many parents, this is actually what determines their school of choice. At Lucca’s school, for example, they have Mandarin and Spanish classes. At the age of 3. And his school is among the best schools in our state because of the curricula they offer. So, this structure works perfectly well for them. Maybe we were the ones in the wrong place. I have to be honest and say that she tried to accommodate to his needs by changing him to another teacher, but at this stage, he had already developed some sort of post-traumatic stress disorder to the school that the simple idea of going there terrified him. That’s when we decided it was time to move on.

To our surprise, when I visited with other schools and explained the situation, a lot of them told me that they followed the same model (they call it “academic-centered”) and they were honest enough to tell me that maybe they were not the best choice for my son. This is when it hit me: America has a growing problem of children and adolescents being medicated for anxiety issues, and while studies are performed to identify meds to help manage the problem, I wonder if anyone has ever wondered what may be causing it. I know some naturalists assign it to the quality of the food the kids are fed: it is not natural, there is a lot of antibiotics, they are GMO, etc. And I know that America is not big at looking at mental health from a preventive perspective. So, has anybody ever asked the question of why are our children becoming more and more anxious from such an early age, or are we just focused on addressing the problem once it is already installed?

Anxiety is not a mental problem that can be assigned one causal factor only, of course. Actually, these days, we hardly ever have a simple cause-effect relationship for any disease: we always talk about risk factors. And today I want to discuss my unique experience (as a reference for something that is widely practiced in America) as a risk factor for the developing of anxiety in children and adolescents.

The quality of public education in America

When my family moved to America, my oldest kid was 14. She started straight in high-school as a freshman. For two years she didn’t have to worry about grabbing a single book to study: everything she was being taught at school she had learned two years prior in Argentina when she was in middle school. The quality of education in Brazil and Argentina is undeniably superior when compared to the education provided in public schools in America. However, our anxiety numbers for kids and teenagers are not even close to America’s. Why can that be?

As I mentioned above, the preschool in Brazil and in Argentina starts at 6. Until then, kids go to school to develop their motor and space skills, as well as their social abilities (learn to share, for example), and to develop psychologically in their interaction with peers. They learn a lot, but everything is done through play. They have fun and, through fun, they learn. As they grow, content starts being introduced. When they reach middle school and high school, they have a volume (and complexity) of content to deal with that you may see in the early years of college here. And when you reach college, you get in 4 years of bachelor school the equivalent to what you get here in 6, through bachelor and master’s degrees.

What I am saying is that even though we don’t start piling up content early on in our home countries, kids end up learning a lot more with fewer anxiety issues than here in America, because we focus on giving them what they can handle over time, respecting their emotional and psychological development. My amazement is: if kids reject this early transition to a preschool structure at the age of 3, how can that be taken as normal? Even though the fact that all kids behave in a certain way may be an indication of a normal adjustment, it may also indicate that this is too much for them. Why not listen and evaluate?

Some may claim that the transition itself of dropping them off at daycare when they are babies is difficult, and that doesn’t mean that it hurts them. While whether it hurts them or not is up for debate, I do think that there is a difference between the two situations: dropping them off at daycare at an early age is something that we, working moms, don’t have the option “not to do”. So, we do what we can to make it as smooth as possible, but we must still do it, and by insistence, they end up adjusting. Now, what is the need (for us or the children) to pile up content from such an early age? If they are showing anxiety signs, and resistance, and this is not something that will allow us to work or even get them into better colleges, why force them into it?

It is about time that we look at our children as people (albeit little) with feelings and personality. They have wants, they have needs, they get sad, they get angry, they get happy, and they tell us what they are ready for and whatnot with their behavior. Why refuse to listen? They have an emotional structure that is also developing and should be attended to. They are not ours to do as we please, which doesn’t mean that they don’t need limits and discipline, but we have to parent them respecting them as human beings, the same way we respect other adults. This is so basic that I wonder why it still has to be discussed.

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