The Anxious Child and the Crisis of Modern Parenting

Kate Julian:

You may already know that an increasing number of our kids are not all right. But to recap: After remaining more or less flat in the 1970s and ’80s, rates of adolescent depression declined slightly from the early ’90s through the mid-aughts. Shortly thereafter, though, they started climbing, and they haven’t stopped. Many studies, drawing on multiple data sources, confirm this; one of the more recent analyses, by Pew, shows that from 2007 to 2017, the percentage of 12-to-17-year-olds who had experienced a major depressive episode in the previous year shot up from 8 percent to 13 percent—meaning that, in the span of a decade, the number of severely depressed teenagers went from 2 million to 3.2 million. Among girls, the rate was even higher; in 2017, one in five reported experiencing major depression.

An even more wrenching manifestation of this trend can be seen in the suicide numbers. From 2007 to 2017, suicides among 10-to-24-year-olds rose 56 percent, overtaking homicide as the second leading cause of death in this age group (after accidents). The increase among preadolescents and younger teens is particularly startling. Suicides by children ages 5 to 11 have almost doubled in recent years. Children’s emergency-room visits for suicide attempts or suicidal ideation rose from 580,000 in 2007 to 1.1 million in 2015; 43 percent of those visits were by children younger than 11. Trying to understand why the sort of emotional distress that once started in adolescence now seems to be leaching into younger age groups, I called Laura Prager, a child psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and a co-author of Suicide by Security Blanket, and Other Stories From the Child Psychiatry Emergency Service. Could she explain what was going on? “There are many theories, but I don’t understand it fully,” she replied. “I don’t know that anyone does.”