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For kids, ‘no question’ that current events-provoked anxiety is on the rise

"When news of violence, war, terrorism, and environmental disasters keeps coming to us, more support goes to the belief that the world is a dangerous place."

Eve Skilton-Sylvester, 16, who has current events-provoked anxiety in her home in Philadelphia.
Eve Skilton-Sylvester, 16, who has current events-provoked anxiety in her home in Philadelphia.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

After the 2016 election, Eve Skilton-Sylvester felt that her world — the whole world, in fact — was sliding downhill. The CNN app on her phone flashed one headline after another: There was talk of building a wall. Maybe Russia had rigged the election. Wildfires were scorching California.

But late last year, when violence came to a corner of South Philadelphia not far from Skilton-Sylvester's school — two teen boys were shot and killed during an argument — the ninth-grader felt something snap.

"I kind of broke down. I was crying because of gun violence. I just started bawling. My mom held me and said, 'Everything's going to be OK.'"

The anguish disrupted her sleep. Some days, she had no appetite. "I thought: My friends are dying; there are going to be more school shootings. I thought there was no point for me to be living."

Skilton-Sylvester, now a 16-year-old sophomore at Girard Academic Music Program, credits her parents, close friends, and professional counselors with helping her climb out of that abyss.

But educators and psychologists across the region note that reactions such as hers have not been isolated, nor fleeting. Even now, two years after a game-changing election, kids from preschool to high school still show stepped-up levels of worry, agitation, and fear.

"We are living in anxious times," psychologist Tamar Chansky, author of Freeing Your Child From Anxiety, told the audience last month at a screening of Angst, a 2017 IndieFlix documentary about kids' anxiety that recently made the rounds of area schools, including Friends Select and Barrack Hebrew Academy.

"When news of violence, war, terrorism, and environmental disasters keeps coming to us, more support goes to the belief that the world is a dangerous place," says Muniya Khanna, a psychologist at the Children's and Adult Center for OCD & Anxiety in Plymouth Meeting. "There's no question that anxiety is increasing."

Psychologists note an important difference between clinical anxiety — a condition that may take the form of panic attacks, phobias, or generalized anxiety and that requires treatment — and the situational stress that kids and teens experience every day.

Both have been on the rise. In a poll of 35,000 teens this year, nearly half said they felt stressed "all the time." An October report from the American Psychological Association showed that high-profile issues including sexual harassment and gun violence were significant stressors for those ages 15 to 21. And according to the Child Mind Institute, a national nonprofit, kids' anxiety diagnoses ticked upward between 2007 and 2012 — a year in which two million U.S. children had a recognized problem with anxiety.

That was before mass shootings in Parkland and Pittsburgh; the separation of migrant families; the October release of a dire U.N. report on climate change. For children and teens whose smart phones deliver a constant barrage of news — whether from vetted sources or friends' Instagram posts — the torrent is hard to escape.

Blake Fox, a 10th grader at Barrack Hebrew Academy, gets his news from CNN, Daily Wire, Twitter, YouTube, Fox, and MSNBC. What he learns is often unnerving.

"When the president of the United States goes on Twitter at 2 in the morning to threaten North Korea, that definitely raises my anxiety," he says.

Some events edge scarily close to home, such as last month's shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue that killed 11 and prompted Jewish institutions, including Fox's school, to boost security. The police cruisers guarding drop-off and dismissal make Fox feel safer even while he fears that "more people are going to have these anti-Semitic beliefs."

In today's caustic climate, psychologists and educators say, certain students feel especially vulnerable: Muslim kids. Those with immigrant parents. LGBTQ teens. Children of color.

Hate-based episodes in schools have spiked since the 2016 election, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Maureen Costello, who runs the center's Teaching Tolerance program, calls it "the Trump effect."

Cheryll Rothery, a psychologist with Philadelphia's Ladipo Group, which specializes in counseling African American teens and adults, says the last two years brought a bitter wake-up for young clients raised in integrated environments and unfamiliar with overt racism.

"All of a sudden, they're having experiences they've never had before," such as being called a racial slur while shopping in a drugstore, Rothery says. "I'm hearing a lot of depression, anxiety, but also disillusion, confusion, and sadness."

Even young children pick up the heightened stress of adults around them, says Kristi Littell, CEO of the K-8 Wissahickon Charter School. "That can show up in all kinds of ways: not feeling well, not sleeping as well. … Children are very tuned in to their worlds even if they don't follow the news of the day."

One strategy to quell anxiety — at least, for older kids — may be to chase that news a little less. These days, Skilton-Sylvester watches newscasts only when she's with her parents or grandparents; she removed the CNN app from her phone.

She's buoyed by stories of young activists. "The fact that people are coming together to make a difference — that makes me really happy. Also the fact that I'm going to be able to vote in the next election."

Fox turned to advocacy; lobbying with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee helped him feel more optimistic about the world. When anxiety strikes, he takes deep breaths to settle his racing heart and tries to evaluate the news feed by asking: "Is this truth or trick?"

Developing a sense of efficacy is another antidote to anxiety, psychologists say. Strategies such as mindfulness, yoga, and, for those with diagnosed anxiety disorders, cognitive behavioral therapy, also help.

At Friends Select School, the psychologist and learning specialist began last year to hold "wellness lunches" with upper school students to de-stigmatize discussions of emotional health. Wissahickon Charter kids made posters with positive messages — "Everyone belongs here!" — to counter the divisive ones they were hearing outside.

And on this year's midterm Election Day, students at Camden's St. Anthony of Padua School, which is 94 percent Hispanic, gathered for their daily assembly in the church's basement. A few eighth graders talked politics. One girl worried about the caravan; another feared that ICE agents might come while she was at school and take her mother away.

Principal Mary Burke read a Bible passage — that day, it happened to be about an ancient migrant caravan, the Israelites' flight from Pharaoh's Egypt. The day before, there was a lockdown —the real thing, not a drill— because of a nearby shooting. But today the kids were chorusing a Lee Greenwood song: "I'm proud to be an American, where at least I know I'm free."

"We try to affirm: You are protected here," says Burke. "We don't always have the answers. But we do listen. We help them to see the cup half-full."