Do you want emotionally resilient teenagers? Start early

| July 24, 2013

Anxiety and depression is much too common among teenagers. Ron Rapee, Professor of Psychology at Macquarie University and director of the Centre for Emotional Health, talks about a program that teaches parents how to give their shy and withdrawn child skills to better manage negative emotions.

Some years ago one of my daughter’s friends tried to overdose in our bathroom. The fear that ran through all of us and especially my daughter and her friends, was palpable. Yet behind it all was a sense of complete disbelief – how can a bright young person with the world at her feet want to hurt herself?

But in fact, emotional distress including anxiety and depression is all too common among young people. Anyone who has a teenager can tell you of the emotional roller-coaster that characterises adolescence. As a reflection, the teenage years are the most common time for the beginning of anxiety and mood disorders that can sometimes come and go across a lifetime. Nearly 1 in 10 young people will experience a diagnosable anxiety or mood disorder. These problems are not trivial and can impact the young person’s academic achievements, social life and family relationships.

Although there are some good treatments for anxiety and depression in young people, as a parent I don’t want my kids to get to the point where they need formal treatment. It would be even better if we could get in early and prevent these difficulties before they ever started affecting our children. Several years ago, at Macquarie University’s Centre for Emotional Health, we decided to try and do this by developing a parent-guided program for preschool aged children. The program, called Cool Little Kids, aims to teach parents of shy and withdrawn children ways to give their child skills to better manage negative emotions.

A recent long-term follow-up has shown that we seem to have succeeded, at least among teenage girls. Our original study involved parents of over 140 preschool-aged children. The children in the study were all at the extreme end in shyness, fears and hesitation. We know that these children are more likely to develop later emotional difficulties (although this is by no means guaranteed). Half of the parents attended six group sessions of Cool Little Kids and the other half did not get any training. By the time the children were aged seven, those whose parents had been through the program were half as likely to have a diagnosable anxiety disorder. By the time they reached 15, the girls whose parents had been through Cool Little Kids, were less likely to have problems with depression or anxiety. Interestingly there were no differences for the boys, possibly because boys are less likely to develop these emotional problems anyway.

There are still a lot of things we don’t know about the development of anxiety and depression. But we seem to have the beginnings of a program that might help to prevent the development of these emotional difficulties from a very early age. There will always be a role for treatment – but if we can get in early, we can help more young people have the healthy start they deserve and reach their full potential.