Kids’ wellness has taken a turn into questionable territory

Even pre-COVID-19, health experts witnessed children struggling with their mental and physical health. The pandemic only intensified it.

“The [child and adolescent mental health] situation is not getting better,” says Dr. David Anderson, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute. “We have a dearth of available care and access to resources.”

Increased rates of anxiety and depression have pushed educators and industries to arm kids with self-management tools. Schools have instituted a wide range of wellness courses, workshops and dedicated rooms teaching everything from nutrition to yoga. Teachers are incorporating mindfulness and breathing exercises at the start of class.

“There’s a greater awareness of the tremendous pressure and challenges that kids are facing younger and younger,” says Colin Sharkey, executive director of the Assn. of American Educators. “Unless you address some of those [issues], it makes it very difficult to have a healthy academic environment where you focus on learning.

Overall, most school initiatives have been lauded for teaching neurotypical kids how to better care for their health. But the small percentage of complaints — which do not reflect the majority of initiatives — pinpoint just how nuanced, complicated and sensitive health education can be. On social media, a cursory scan finds parents bemoaning tests that “grade” students on their wellness, counterintuitively propelling more stress. Another parent felt that an overemphasis on mental health conditions might pressure kids to develop one. “[My daughter] thinks that she’s supposed to have something [mentally] wrong with her,” wrote one mom on Twitter.

Mental health issues are rising faster for girls than for boys, so the idea of wellness may come into girls’ orbits earlier and more often. Teen girls, for example, learn about the latest wellness fad or product via TikTok and Instagram influencers, and even tween magazines. Katie Hurley, a child and adolescent psychotherapist based in El Segundo, and the author of “No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls,” says girls are picking up crystals, getting into astrology and doing face masks regularly (to the point of drying out their skin). It’s not that these activities are intrinsically worrisome. Rather, the pervasive messaging continually directed at girls is having unintended consequences.

Girls get the message that “you need to be exercising, you need to be eating healthy, you need to be taking care of yourself. Self-care becomes a job,” says Hurley. “This is how they’re being told that they’ll be successful: if you manage yourself, if you ‘calm yourself down.’” Several adolescent patients tell her that they “don’t have the time” for all these activities.

The message that parents really need is that they don’t need stuff to help their kids lead a healthy life.

— Susan Linn, author of “Consuming Kids”

Affording all this self-care is another issue. In 2020, Mattel released its Barbie Wellness Collection to introduce “girls to the benefits of self-care through play.” By that, it meant that Barbie focused on personal well-being with what Barbie does best: accessories. She had a yoga mat, fashionable athleisure-wear, seven skin care masks, lotion bottles and even a fruit smoothie stand. Through Barbie’s armada of feel-good “things,” health was equated with the right purchases, narrowing wellness to its consumerist and appearance-based stereotypes.

“The message that parents really need is that they don’t need stuff to help their kids lead a healthy life,” says psychologist Susan Linn, a research associate at Boston Children’s Hospital and the author of “Consuming Kids.” “But the goal of marketers is to convince customers that their sense of well-being lies in some product that can be bought.”

If Mattel had called it a spa collection, it would be less controversial. But by calling it “wellness” and associating it with health, we shift these activities into something a lot more loaded. Still, a Mattel spokesperson said, “We are proud to have launched the line to celebrate wellness trends girls see around them at home, school and beyond.”

Wellness Barbie might be missing what true holistic wellness actually entails. The iconic doll doesn’t communicate anything substantial about relationships, developing an identity or social support, says Dr. Eugene V. Beresin, executive director of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital. “You can’t have a sense of well-being without friends, peers and parents. We’re pack animals.”

Likewise, Barbie’s YouTube channel — with more than 10 million subscribers — insinuates the lone individual can overcome negative emotions and stress. The Self-Care collection of videos shows America’s most prolific blond addressing issues such as “feeling blue” and expressing vulnerabilities in a relatable way. But she mostly recommends breathing exercises, journaling, beauty rituals and meditation. Such activities, alongside the use of creative art, can in fact help people prevent and cope with anxiety, mental health experts explain. The issue is overemphasizing them as primary solutions.

This has long been a criticism aimed at the wellness industry. Personal responsibility is crucial, but the idea that we alone can manage health disregards communal support and addressing external forces. Or, at its worst, it suggests that one is stressed or depressed because they didn’t prioritize bubble baths.

“Rather than figuring out what are the pressures that are leading to the anxiety, what we seem to be doing is getting kids to talk about strong emotions using therapeutic language, but not to do anything about it,” says Nancy McDermott, author of “The Problem With Parenting: How Raising Children Is Changing Across America.”

illustration of a Wellness kit ad for a kids Peloton "spin bike Jr." and other accessories

( Zack Rosebrugh / For The Times )