Parents to blame for Aussie kids’ anxiety epidemic
Exclusive: Over scheduling and under parenting are some of the factors driving a generation of anxious kids who are growing 'old before their time' due to social media and a parenting trend to treat children as adults.
Custody issues, "living frantic lifestyles", striving for perfection, over-protectiveness and even excessively medicating were some of the reasons nominated by school leaders as contributing to the anxiety.
One principal even noted "parents hand over packets of Valium when leaving for camp".
The Australian Primary Principals Association (APPA) met in Canberra on Monday to discuss a report on the impact of childhood anxiety on schooling.
The report found parents were feeling overwhelmed and "at a loss" with 15 per cent of comments referring to parents who don't have the resources to help their own child, other comments included "parenting skills are lacking", "weak parenting skills" and "parents aren't sure how to deal with their own and their children's anxieties."
The survey found 90 per cent of principals said anxiety in students was placing major time and resources on schools and 60 per cent said they had insufficient resources to deal with the issue.
Principals are now calling on schools to be trained in identifying anxiety in parents and children and to educate parents in how to recognise and moderate their own anxiety.
Malcolm Elliott, President of the APPA said anxiety was a growing issue: "We want to be very clear that no blame is being apportioned on parents, anxiety rates are at record levels with anxiety the most common mental health issue in the nation, so it is no surprise that it is impacting children.
"The purpose of the research was to assess the size of the issue and we will use the findings to work with government, schools, parent and educational agencies to work collectively to prepare strategies to help address the issue."
Psychologist and expert in child behaviour Michael Hawton said a parenting trend towards parents being less authoritative coupled with social media and access to the internet was creating a generation of anxious kids.
"There is a collapsing of some kind of hierarchy and it is not just parents. Kids are exposed to too much constantly and they can't solve it, it makes them afraid.
"Is it appropriate to be talking to five year olds about dead fauna from recent bushfires as part of a classroom event?"
The report found children with anxiety had difficulty socialising with other children, struggled academically and in the most extreme cases refused to attend school.
Kids Helpline's Tony Fitzgerald said in the last six months they had 960 cases of young people who have been diagnosed with anxiety disorders.
"That is a significant number. All kids suffer from anxiety at some stage but it seems like they are struggling with strategies. If that anxiety is not addressed it can turn into an anxiety disorder and they need professional help," he said.
Principal of Casula Public School Robyn Evans, Deputy President of the NSW Primary Principals Association, said that there were high expectations placed on students.
"There is an inordinate amount of pressure on them to succeed, things like testing - students buckle under that pressures for not good cause. Unfortunately we do see violence and acting out and in extremes. I am also seeing children who choose not to speak, also children suffering eating disorders - they are working through things and what they can control is themselves."
Performance anxiety around NAPLAN came up as one factor affecting anxiety levels, especially in year 3, as well as mortgage stress and time-poor parents struggling to tick the boxes of varied extra-curricular activities, getting homework done and striving for high marks.
President of the Australian Catholic Primary Principals Association Brad Gaynor said: "I find kids are constantly on the go and I don't think they have time to relax and unwind because their parents don't.
"Certainly parenting has changed and I think schools are now supporting families a lot more in parenting.
"But we are definitely expecting too much of our schools, it is not just the schools responsibility, it is a shared effort to work through, we already have a crowded curriculum and we can't do it all.
"It needs to be a community response. We need to be looking more holistically at what schools provide."
Mother-of-three Maraya Bell runs Stuff Mums Like website and said competition stakes between parents was prompting anxiety in children.
"So they are getting extra tutoring and doing intensive sports classes and parents asking teachers for more homework and children are feeling that pressure," she said.
Ms Bell, who lives in a duplex with her sister on the other side, says they manage their busy lifestyles by doling out duties between four parents.
"We have a whole schedule and juggle pick up and drops offs between us."