The frequent and dramatic discussions on rape, sexual violence and assaults are fuelling fear and social anxiety that has made people feel threatened and unsafe, making some overly aggressive about protecting their friends, family and the social fabric.
The specific biomarkers for anxiety disorders have not been identified, which makes it difficult to identify persons at risk. But it is well established that women are twice as likely as men to suffer from anxiety, which is defined by excess worry, hyperarousal (constant state of alarm and physical alert), and debilitating fear. Apart from damaging health by raising stress and related disorders, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, insomnia, mood disorders, among others, untreated anxiety also lowers productivity and affects relationships.
The fallout on children of the rising anxiety and fear around us is often neglected. Anxious parents raise ‘kidults’ who are not equipped to cope with the complexities of the adult world, which raises their own chances of having anxiety, stress and depression as adults. American anthropologist David F Lancy, compares different methods of child-rearing across cultures and continents in his book, ‘Raising Children: Surprising Insights from Other Cultures’, to demonstrate that overprotected children grow up to be anxious adults.
“Apprehensive parents transfer their own anxiety to children and overcompensate for the real and perceived threats by becoming over-protective. The absence of social and environmental stimulation stymies a child’s natural growth and development. It’s like children taught to walk with the support of a stick will struggle to walk on their own,” says professor of psychiatry (child and adolescent services), All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Rajesh Sagar.
Signs of anxiety in children are excessive worry over grades, family issues, relationships with peers, and school and sports performance, and the need for constant approval or reassurance from others. Apart from parental stress, anxiety disorders are caused by a complex interplay of several psychosocial factors, such as childhood adversity, stress, or trauma, and a genetic vulnerability, which leads to neurobiological and neuropsychological dysfunctions.
While anxiety disorders can manifest at any age, separation anxiety usually start at the median age of seven years, social anxiety disorder at 13 years, agoraphobia (fear of places and situations) at about 20 years, and panic disorders by 24 years. Panic disorder with or without agoraphobia may begin even later in life.
The shrill and constant discussions of sexual assault and violence feed anxiety in children to make them feel vulnerable and threatened. “We have to move away from knee-jerk reactions to address assault and violence in ways that don’t fuel fear and insecurity in children. The more we try to ‘normalise’ the conversation by talking about sexual assault without doing anything about it, the more the child will fear the world,” says, director, Department of Mental Health and Behavioural Sciences, Fortis Healthcare, Samir Parikh.
Anxious parenting often leads children, particularly girls and young women, to lose out on self-development opportunities. “Over-protection often leads to girls and women getting pushed and restricted into a gender stereotypical behaviour and prevented from leaving home to study, work or simply meet people. This fear of restriction prevents many girls and women from reporting social and sexual transgressions and assault even to their own family, which leads to their trauma getting internalised and the perpetuator getting away,” says Parikh.
Psychiatrists suggest all reports on rapes must include solution-based information, very similar to reporting on suicides that includes counselling helplines. “New reports must highlight consequences for the assaulters and their families as a deterrent so it becomes a social learning for potential perpetuators, who should not think that people get away with it, and so will we,” says Parikh.
Sex education, which now goes by the less controversial term of life-skills education, must begin when a child starts school. “We need to teach gender sensitivity and provide age-appropriate sex education at home and in school from a very young age to both boys and girls. Sexual violence must be taken beyond sensationalism and blame-game to a solution-based approach, such zero tolerance for violence in society, fast-tracking trials, reporting consequences for assaulters, and the emotional and human repercussions, including for the perpetuator and their families,” says Sagar.