Childhood Anxiety Steadily On the Rise Since the 1950s

From the WebMD Archives

Dec. 14, 2000 -- Job insecurity, relocation, divorce -- they play havoc with adults' lives. But what affect has such tumult had on children? A new study shows that since the 1950s, children have indeed been feeling repercussions of all this instability -- and that today's kids are suffering far more anxiety than any previous generation, leading some to call this "The Age of Anxiety."

"Anxiety has increased substantially among children and college-age students over the last three decades," says Jean M. Twenge, PhD, a psychologist with Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. "The average American child in the 1980s reported more anxiety than child psychiatric patients in the 1950s."

Her research -- the first to take this broad look at anxiety in children -- is published in this month's Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

"It shows that the larger social environment can have a large impact on personality traits and feelings such as anxiety," Twenge tells WebMD. "When [children] live in a society with a high crime rate, high divorce rate, and low levels of trust, they grow up feeling anxious."

Twenge analyzed published research on anxiety involving more than 40,000 college students and 12,000 children, aged 9-17, between 1952 and 1993. They represent a cross-section of American kids, she says -- "kids who grew up in cities, suburbs, rural areas, all sorts of environments."

Twenge found "steady and significantly large increases in anxiety levels" in children over the 30-year period.

Genetics plays some role in predisposition to anxiety, Twenge adds, but both her studies found that "decreases in social connectedness and increases in environmental dangers may be responsible for the increase in anxiety."

What she calls "environmental dangers" -- crime rate, AIDS, worry about nuclear war, and increase in suicide rate among teenagers -- showed a "direct correlation" with anxiety levels, she tells WebMD. The threats can be physical, like violent crime, or more psychological, like worrying about nuclear war. Also, she says, "most adolescents know someone, or knows somebody who knows someone, who has committed suicide."

Divorce played a significant role in children's anxiety. "The higher the divorce rate, the more people were living alone, the higher the anxiety," she tells WebMD.

"Also, with geographic mobility among families, involving relocations to new cities, you are more likely to not know your neighbors, to be away from family members," she says, increasing a child's isolation and loneliness.

Children -- more than college students -- seemed to be most affected by the family's stress. "That may be because personality is forming during childhood and adolescence. You are going to carry your child environment with you the rest of your life," says Twenge.

She tells WebMD, though, that economic factors -- like a parent's unemployment -- "did not seem to play a role in creating anxiety in children." Apparently, children are less concerned with whether their family has enough money than whether it is threatened by violence or divorce, she says.

The bottom line: chronic anxiety takes a toll on long-term physical and mental health, Twenge says. "Anxiety can predispose to depression. Anxiety is also linked to higher incidence of physical health problems such as asthma, heart disease, gastrointestinal upsets."

To combat anxiety, she advises parents to limit children's -- and their own -- exposure to violent media. "People who watch local news perceive their neighborhoods as more dangerous," Twenge tells WebMD.

"Work on your connections with other people. Get to know your neighbors. Help your children build good relationships. Talk to friends and family about your worries and fears. Social relationships can serve as buffer against stress," she says. ... "Independence and freedom are wonderful things, but they often do mean we're not as connected with other people. It can be a trade off."

Also, examine your expectations about your life, Twenge suggests. She says that although there is currently not a lot of research to support this, "TV and movies have created higher expectations for us in terms of appearance, wealth, jobs, and relationships. That has meant that we aspire to an unreachable ideal, which can cause tremendous anxiety. I hate to say don't watch TV and go to movies, but you can remind yourself that this is an unrealistic ideal.

"You cannot change a child's genetics, but you can change the media they watch, help them with the quality of their relationships," she says. "It's difficult to change the entire society, but you can change society's impact on you and your family."

Calling Twenge's study "very good research," Nadine Kaslow, PhD, professor and chief psychologist at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, tells WebMD, "it brings together information from many different studies, giving us a very comprehensive overview of this problem.

"We know that less social connectedness makes you more anxious and more afraid," she says. "Kids feel less safe and secure. And with these environmental dangers, they're frightened. The world doesn't feel like such a safe place. People don't seem as trustworthy. And if there's divorce and other problems, life inside the family may not feel as predictable or nurturing."

As adults, Kaslow says, "they're likely to become more anxious, more vulnerable to substance abuse, depressed. I think it's harder to form relationships when you're anxious; it's harder to take chances."

The point, says Kaslow, is that "parents and other adults really need to attend to kids' anxieties. They need to take extra time every day to make sure they nurture their kids, that when something distressing happens in the home or environment they spend enough time processing it with the kids, talking about their fears and anxieties, putting an emphasis on making their lives as stable and supportive and nurturing and predictable as possible. Anxiety's about unpredictability."