In my early 30s, an elderly friend once said to me “Geez, you’re the oldest young person I know.”
He didn’t mean it as a compliment. He meant I was too serious, not carefree enough, not adventurous enough. In short, I was a fuddy-duddy (technical term) way before my time.
While he meant it as a slight, I did not take it as such. I had always been a serious person, even as a child. It was my temperament.
Hand in hand with that, I was always a worrier too. Psychologists often consider our first memories as harbingers of important insights. My first memory of worrying was in the 1st grade. It was February. We were celebrating President’s week—Lincoln’s birthday in particular—the following day. Before leaving school that afternoon the teacher, hoping to incite our curiosity and excitement, mentioned that the next day we would be making log cabins like the one Lincoln lived in.
I ruminated about that log cabin construction project all afternoon and evening. Climbing up the stairs to go to bed I burst into tears. When my startled mother asked why I was crying, I let loose all my pent up anxiety. I sobbed about having to make log cabins in school and that I didn’t know how. I blathered that I was afraid I would not be able to pull off such a monumental task. After numerous reassurances that it would all be ok and that no one would expect a first grader to make a Paul Bunyan-esque rendering of a log cabin in one art class session, I finally drifted off to sleep.
Sure enough, the next day, our log cabin exercise consisted of 3 pieces of pre-cut construction paper glued together, the highlight of which was a red chimney and two perfectly placed cuts (from childproof scissors) that rendered a “door” that would really open—onto just the background construction paper mind you, but it was 1st grade after all.
That is my first memory of excessive worrying for naught. Unfortunately, not my last.
As grade schoolers we worried about nuclear war. I missed the infamous duck-and-cover drills by a few years, but as a cheap substitute, we were shown films about the aftermath of nuclear holocaust. The overarching theme was that those at ground zero would be the lucky ones. It wasn’t pretty. It was worrisome. We whispered about it on the playground and envisioned it at night at home in our beds.
As teenagers we worried about … well, everything … hair, clothes, make-up, grades, parents and absolutely every social event, no matter how small. Everything, it seems, was its own drama.
And yet, there is a myth about childhood—that it is carefree and without serious worry. After all, there are no car repairs, mortgages, 401Ks, leaky roofs or tyrannical bosses.
Theirs may seem like petty drama when compared to our daily struggles as an adult, but, as they say, everything is relative.
Psych Pstuff’s Summary
In hindsight, school days may seem like a cake-walk when compared to the stress and demands of adult daily jobs. But consider this: we spend most of our workday engaged in activities for which we have some level of competence, if not pure mastery. Kids spend most of their school day being presented with all that they do not know and must, in a given amount of time, master.
Seriously, do you remember school days being unbridled joy? Carefree? Do you really want to go back?
As a child almost everything is confusing and you have very little control over your own life—for your own good, of course, but it doesn’t feel like that. Children are weak and they are vulnerable. They can be frightened and angry and lonely, just like adults can.
Throw in a dose of the not uncommon dramas of the modern human condition—moving, illness (self and others), separation, divorce, new siblings or step-siblings—and you have a perfect storm for turning a child’s world upside down and all the associated stress reactions.
And don’t forget the playground politics—the friendships won and lost and won again, the social cliques, rumors, the “in” group, the “out” group, being chosen last for the sports team, etc. While not exactly Lord of the Flies, negotiating the social scene from elementary school to high school is fraught with emotional landmines.
Sometimes it’s petty and sometimes it’s serious. When simple teasing transcends into malicious bullying the consequences can be tragic. We all remember the new stories of teens committing suicide over relentless harassment and social media shaming.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the prevalence of major depressive disorder is approximately 1 percent of preschoolers, 2 percent of school-aged children and 5 to 8 percent of adolescents. Anxiety disorders affect one in eight children.
Among students in grades 9-12 in the U.S. (from the CDC 2015 report):
- 17.0% of students seriously considered attempting suicide in the previous 12 months (22.4% of females and 11.6% of males).
- 13.6% of students made a plan about how they would attempt suicide in the previous 12 months (16.9% of females and 10.3% of males).
- 8.0% of students attempted suicide one or more times in the previous 12 months (10.6% of females and 5.4% of males).
- 2.7% of students made a suicide attempt that resulted in an injury, poisoning, or an overdose that required medical attention (3.6% of females and 1.8% of males).
But even when the consequences are not so extreme, the emotional pain is real. There is no Richter Scale for angst or worry, ranking my anguish as more severe than yours. My anxiety over a simple construction paper log cabin could rival that of an adult’s over a job interview or work project, even though my livelihood was not at stake. It was unwarranted. It was exaggerated. It was, on an objective level, trivial. But nonetheless, it was my whole world in that moment.
It’s important to note here that I am clearly talking primarily about the privileged middle class in Western societies. There are certainly a myriad of serious humanitarian issues that face children the world over that are of greater importance than the comparatively minor issues addressed here. They are beyond the scope of this article.
There is no Richter Scale for angst or worry, ranking my anguish as more severe than yours. My anxiety over a simple construction paper log cabin could rival that of an adult’s over a job interview or work project, even though my livelihood was not at stake.
Granted, many children of first world countries have the opportunity to enjoy childhoods markedly different than their counterparts in third world nations. Most American children aren’t forced into hard labor or subject to exploitation—in fact they are protected from it. And while poverty, homelessness, violence, abuse and neglect happen in numbers far too large in the US, those are neither the populations nor the issues upon which I am focusing.
The point here is that even those of us who, relatively speaking, “have it all” subjectively experience real angst in the dramas, and even the mini-dramas, of everyday life—both as adults and, in fundamentally equal measure, as children.
So remind your children (and perhaps yourself) of the sage words of Christopher Robin, “You’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”
If you think someone is considering suicide, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 can help. The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources.