I hear a lot about today’s kids being more stressed out than ever before, and that the cause is over-scheduling their downtime, pressure to succeed academically, or just neurotic parents. We don’t know how much of this is true, but we do know that identification of anxiety problems in kids is higher than in the past. Anxiety disorders affect one in eight children.
What does anxiety look like in children?
Children may be fearful of a specific thing or situation (phobias) or they may experience anxiety in many different situations (generalized anxiety disorder). Just like adults, children can experience anxiety as a result of disruptive or traumatic event (adjustment disorder; post traumatic stress disorder) or for no apparent reason.
When is it a disorder?
Anxiety and fear are normal and protective reactions to harmful threats. A benefit to a sensitive fight-or-flight response, is that anxious children may be less likely to engage in risky behavior. However, a child whose anxiety and fear keep him from enjoying activities, functioning well in school, or making friends, may have a disorder that requires treatment.
Children with anxiety disorders are more likely to experience depression as well. If untreated, an anxiety disorder may lead to academic problems, social problems, and substance abuse.
What to do if you suspect your child is anxious.
Don’t minimize your child’s fears (“Don’t be silly, there’s nothing to be scared about.”), but don’t reinforce his anxious behavior with lots of attention. Offer support while helping him challenge irrational beliefs (“What do you think will happen if you don’t get an A on your math test?).
Children have a higher risk of developing anxiety if a parent has an anxiety disorder. It is unclear how much genetics and environment play a role, but it is worth taking a hard look at the way you handle stress. Do you verbalize your worries often? Do you make it clear that you get anxious if you don’t have things done a certain way?
DON’T take on the role of therapist if your child’s anxiety is a persistent issue. If your child’s anxiety is preventing her from doing the things she used to enjoy or inhibiting her academic or social development, talk to your pediatrician. You can discuss your child’s symptoms and decide on next steps.