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Parents worry that their kids might struggle with anxiety and depression, report says

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Parents are always worrying about their kids. Are they hungry? Are they cold? Are they happy? And it doesn't matter if those kids are 30 or 13 years old. Right now, though, for American parents, the biggest concern about their kids younger than 18 is not drugs. It's not alcohol or teen pregnancy. It's mental health. A recent Pew survey finds that around 40% of parents are extremely or very worried their children might struggle with anxiety or depression. I asked Dr. Pamela Cantor, founder and senior science adviser of Turnaround for Children, what these numbers say about the struggles of the youngest Americans today.

PAMELA CANTOR: If anything, the numbers could turn out to be an underestimate of the suffering. Health and illness exist on a continuum. And if you stress a system in the body in an unremitting kind of way, that system will get frayed. And when it gets frayed, symptoms appear. And put everything I just said in the context of the last 2 1/2 years of the pandemic.

MARTÍNEZ: Stress, anxiety, depression is not like some kind of infection that you get, and then you take a piece of medicine, and it goes away.

CANTOR: We know that there are things that we can do, whether they have to do with nutrition, sleep, meditation. We know that sports and athletics and physical activity can be helpful. And most of all, relationships, supportive relationships have a biology that's actually protective of the brain.

MARTÍNEZ: What does that do to a child's mind?

CANTOR: Many people don't know that the human relationship is actually biologically mediated by an incredibly powerful hormone called oxytocin. It is the hormone that produces feelings of love, trust, attachment and safety. And it only gets activated one way, human connection. In addition to that, it actually supports learning. It makes kids want to discover and explore. It gives them the confidence to try things.

MARTÍNEZ: What kind of role does social media play when it comes to all the things you mentioned?

CANTOR: Social media actually will activate certain parts of the brain that are called the reward pathways. These are pathways that drive appetite. So imagine the more you click, the more you check your Instagram account and your Twitter account, that process is actually strengthening the reward pathways and strengthening the appetite for more. So we have a situation going on where the actual behavior around social media is increasing the appetite for social media, even though the effect of social media on things like self-esteem, sleep and well-being are profound and not positive.

MARTÍNEZ: So when I was raising my daughter in the '90s...

CANTOR: Yeah.

MARTÍNEZ: ...When she was a pre-teen transitioning into being a teen, she went through all the things that you just mentioned, but there was no social media back then. So how do you know if it's a stressor caused by these external pressures, or it's just kids growing up, and, you know, stuff happens to kids' hormones when they grow up?

CANTOR: We have had a once-in-a-century event. A giant amount of stress was applied to a very vulnerable population. Kids between the ages of 12 and 25 have been hardest hit by this. And what they have been hardest hit by is stress in the areas of their greatest vulnerabilities - identity formation, their mood, their belief in themselves, their confidence in the future. That's where the stresses have been most profound.

MARTÍNEZ: Kids, adults, older - I mean, everyone - it pushed everyone toward this isolation with our devices.

CANTOR: What I would wish for kids is that they thought about, who in the world are the trusted figures to them? Who are the people that could most remind them their self-worth, of their assets and strengths?

MARTÍNEZ: So, Doctor, what are some signs, then, that parents should look out for?

CANTOR: The things that one should always be on alert for is a marked change in what are called constitutional symptoms. That means things like appetite, sleep, mood, anger and aggressiveness, impulsivity. Those are indicators that something is not right emotionally speaking. And, you know, if a young person has a bad day, we shouldn't be ringing the alarm bells. But when you see a change like that and it's a persistent change - it goes on for a week or two - then the effects of the stress are probably beginning to take their toll.

MARTÍNEZ: Doctor, how do you help parents, then, who feel helpless when their children are struggling because you want to do something, but you feel paralyzed?

CANTOR: Where parents are able to be one of the people their kids trust the most, then parents or teachers or a wonderful coach can be the antidote to this. And that means that they probably have to not judge, not blame, not criticize but be curious and interested about their kids' lives and create that space, the safe space where a young person wants to tell you what's actually going on. And when they don't want to tell you that, they're going to find somebody else. And if they really have no one in their life, they're going to find social media.

MARTÍNEZ: Doctor, the Pew survey also pointed to parental burnout.

CANTOR: Yeah.

MARTÍNEZ: My kids are in their 30s. I worry about them every single day. And they have kids, so I worry about my grandkids, too.

CANTOR: Of course you do.

MARTÍNEZ: Is there anything that can help me not worry so much?

CANTOR: It's some feeling that you're not alone, some feeling that somebody really understands what's going on and empathizes with it. And you bond with others that can make you feel the sunshine, make you feel the light in your life. Those things make you feel strong. And those are the kinds of things that build resilience.

MARTÍNEZ: That's child psychiatrist and author Dr. Pamela Cantor. Doctor, thank you.

CANTOR: Thank you so much, A.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRACEY CHATTAWAY'S "EARLY LIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.