Increased Childhood and Adolescent Anxiety and Depression

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

I grew up in the Bronx in New York City. After school hours and summer vacation were filled with neighborhood kids playing endless types of games. Notable in these activities were the fact that we made our own rules for these games and played them without adult supervision or interference. Whether the games were tag, stick ball, “hide and seek,” or any of dozens of others, we were on our own. Of course, there were those times when we would argue over who may have broken a rule or won or lost a game. Without umpires or adults, we strenuously argued over these all important questions. Most often, a solution was found. At other times, we just stopped playing the game. At times, there would be childhood fight resulting more in bruised feelings than anything else. In other words, we were quite resourceful. When my kids grew up, things were very different.

More than at any other time, studies show an increased rate of anxiety and depression among children and adolescents. There has been lots of speculation over why this is happening. One of the theories has to do with what psychologists call “locus of control.” What is locus of control?

Control has to do with thoughts about whether or not a person knows they can influence what is happening in life. For instance, there is “external locus of control,” and “internal locus of control.” Internal locus of control has to do with a person’s self confidence. There is an internal sense of competence to meet situations and ability to find solutions. The thinking goes something like this, “If I try hard, I may become rich but even if I don’t I have a sense of personal growth and achievement.” Feeling rewarded comes from experience and self growth.

On the other hand, external locus of control has to do with factors over which a person has little or no control because they have to do with events in the outside world. In this case, a person measures their sense of accomplishment by how much money they have earned or how big a house they own. There is much less of a sense of control over achievement because the goals rely on external events rather than on an internal sense of competence. An individual may value looking beautiful, but whether or not they are depends on factors over which they have little or no control.

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Research dating back to the 1960s showed that children had an internal locus of control that was probably rooted in the fact that they played alone, or with each other, without parental involvement. Much like the example at the start of this article, they learned that solutions could be found through their own efforts.

Today, children and teenagers have much less opportunity to play. When they do play, it is often with parental or other adult supervision. Longer school days, increased amounts of homework and the emphasis on after school extra curricular activities, all cut into what was once play time for kids. Furthermore, when kids do play, parents have to drive them to the houses of other youngsters nearby. There no longer that sense of independence and spontaneity that once came from us kids in the Bronx. When games do occur, they are organized, as in football, softball, tennis and other organized sports. Coaches resolve issues rather than having a group of kids find their own solutions to controversies.

In sum, kids don’t feel an internal locus of control because they no longer have the time to play and develop their own inner sense of confidence. Today, achievement for kids and adults alike is focused on material things that are used to measure success. It is not possible to feel a sense of competence when achievement is measured by chance rather than by the development of competence.

What are your thoughts about youngsters and play time?

Your comments are encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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