Once upon a time, the group seeing the largest increase in depression was adults over forty. Depression is now rising among children, and it’s striking them at younger and younger ages. Instead of progressively learning how to live fully and meaningfully, kids are becoming more worried and tentative and less able to grow through facing normal issues and conquering their challenges.
An anxious and fearful mindset is heavily linked to depression. Some kids, around 20 percent, are born with a more fearful pre-disposition than others. “They can be spotted in the womb; they have fast heartbeats. Their nervous systems are innately programmed to be over-excitable in response to stimulation, constantly sending out false alarms about what is dangerous.” Already, as infants and children, these kids see threats where others don’t. They tend to be shy, withdrawn, and lacking in social confidence; other kids see their vulnerability and often target them for bullying.
If this were the only information we had about such children, we might conclude that their lot in life was held in the cold hands of destiny and DNA. However, research shows that genetic programming isn’t inevitable:
At age two, none of the over-excitable infants wound up fearful if their parents backed off from hovering and allowed the children to find some comfortable level of accommodation to the world on their own. Those parents who overprotected their children—directly observed by conducting interviews in the home—brought out the worst in them.
Says Michael Liebowitz, clinical professor and head of the Anxiety Disorders clinic at New York State Psychiatric Institute:
[Children] need to be gently encouraged to take risks and learn that nothing terrible happens. They need gradual exposure to find that the world is not dangerous. Having overprotective parents is a risk factor for anxiety disorders because children do not have opportunities to master their innate shyness and become more comfortable in the world.
This cuts down two false parental assumptions. The truth is, constant scrutiny leads anywhere but toward innate confidence or inner strength. It makes kids self-conscious and even self-obsessed. It teaches them to bury their feelings and to lie about the emotions they do experience. They come to feel they have no real choice in the matter: The message sent by constant scrutiny is that the “right” emotions are the ones their parents want them to express. This gradually paralyzes the growth of any child, and it can do untold damage to boys, who lag behind girls in emotional intelligence. Broad denial of emotions is one reason today’s teenagers can seem so absurd. Even though what they’re hiding is in plain view, they feel they’re better off pretending it isn’t there—they’re desperately trying to get out from under the magnifying glass.
This treatment of children is usually well-meant but usually disastrous. It makes kids prone to some of the worst mental illnesses, and it weakens our social fabric by weakening young people to the point of cowardice. These children are more prone to follow destructive peer pressure, more susceptible to herd mentality, more passive against bullying and abuse, far less likely to defend another person, and unwilling to assert their will in questioning corrupt authority.
This last observation, an inability to recognize and differentiate between healthy and unhealthy authority, is particularly important to the work I do with passive men, whom I call Nice Guys. It can take them years to confront clear examples of workplace bullying or social abuse—some of which would likely be deemed illegal. When some never do confront it, they’re filled with shame and self-reproach, but they’ve been trained (often through an overprotected childhood) to rationalize away their emotions and to simply accept abusive treatment. Their will, their conscience, their dreams and desires—their being—was so overridden for so long by hovering parents that they became programmed to accept anything and everything that comes their way.
Another pitfall of overprotection is a heartbreaking irony: Because over-parented children are taught to obsess over themselves, they don’t learn how to connect with others. Helicopter parents, who think they are drenching their children with love, are raising lonely sons and daughters. The kids’ constant self-focus, developed under the tonnage of unending parental intervention, handicaps them in every social setting.
Self-focused kids—whether they’re shy and withdrawn or brash and mouthy—do not reach out to other people. They’re not friendly, so they don’t make friends well. Their near total self-consciousness appears to others as self-absorption. What they need is wise guidance and encouraging nudges. Problem is, that’s exactly what many overprotective parents find distasteful and don’t want—nudging their kids outward, even little by little, would negate their constant presence and persistent meddling.
And when they do allow their children to enter “the realm of others,” by demanding special consideration, they expect others to coddle their child. They tend to unleash harsh words and passive-aggression on those who don’t, whether grown-ups or youngsters. Such parents, mostly mothers, stack the deck against their own best interests as they contaminate play and turn their children into the pariahs of the kid world.
These lonely children tend strongly toward depression—again, they don’t learn how to think and choose for themselves, and their brain gradually becomes more and more unable to manage their situations. Furthermore, though, because their parents’ words and actions teach them that virtually everyone else is an enemy or an antagonist, they can also become unreasonably suspicious, or in a word, paranoid.
Timid, isolated kids see offense where no offense is given. For instance, an unintentional elbow in the back during recess is considered a calculated attack; the child who sees it that way is touchy, uppity…a potential wimp and a target for bullies. Kids who integrate well and understand the nuanced world of play get invited to play with other kids. Those who don’t are excluded, overtly or covertly, and that dangerous cycle can form very early—experts say sometimes as early as three years of age.
Social ties not only keep us at healthy distances from the cliffs of depression and anxiety, they also keep us tethered to the real world, grounded in the sometimes-hard-to-ascertain state of reality, especially when we’re under intense or prolonged stress. A good friend or network of friends can help keep us from sinking in many of life’s deep ends.
In the long run, the ability to maintain social ties is probably the best kind of life and health insurance. “This has already become part of the wisdom of the culture. Medical studies tell us that having friends, even animal ones, improves physical health among [for example] the sick, the disabled, and the elderly.”
One aspect of our immune system is particularly relevant to the shy child. He or she seems, broadly, more attuned to picking up negative signals than positive ones. A mildly negative event, like a look of disapproval from a friend, registers far more strongly than moderately positive events, or even strongly positive ones.
Dr. John Gottman, of the Gottman Institute, has found that a single look of contempt can outweigh five good acts. If this predisposition to taking predominantly negative feelings to heart is common in people generally, it’s that much more so in the hyper-sensitive child, one who lives in a world filled with various degrees of fear. This not only puts her even further behind in life, it also places her squarely in the path of another devastating force for overprotected children: Their timid, helpless disposition and countenance throughout the school day means they’re the kind of kids that attract bullies.
Next time: Overprotection and bullied victims.
Paul Coughlin is the author of numerous books, including No More Christian Nice Guy and No More Jellyfish, Chickens or Wimps. He also co-authored a book for married couples with his wife Sandy, titled Married But Not Engaged. His articles appear in Focus on the Family magazine, and he as been interviewed by Dr. James Dobson, FamilyLife Radio, HomeWord, Newsweek, C-SPAN, The New York Times, and the 700 Club among others. Paul is founder of The Protectors, the faith-based answer to adolescent bullying, which provides curriculum for Sunday Schools, private schools, retreats, and individuals that trains people of faith to be sources of light in the theater of bullying.