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Managing Childhood Anxiety

BMoreHealthyIt’s no secret that we are living in a stressful day and age. Parents are expected to juggle work and home life, and help their children navigate the competitive worlds of school, sports and social activities. And with social media permeating our daily lives, the added pressure to project a perfect image only adds to our day-to-day anxieties. It’s easy to see why adults are so stressed out—but what about children and teens?

Due to a number of factors—our cultural obsession with materialism, the rise of technology, increasingly high performance standards— it turns out that anxiety is also on the rise among children and teens. While having some worries is a normal part of growing up, too many worries can be symptoms of a more serious anxiety disorder.

Anxiety is Common in Children and Teens

Anxiety is common among kids and teens—affecting about one in eight children under 18. Anxiety can develop in children and teens for numerous reasons, including genetic, behavioral and environmental factors. Many experience anxiety at pivotal moments in their development—such as attending a sleepover, starting high school or getting a driver’s license. According to a 2016 study from the Child Mind Institute,
the proportion of 15- and 16-year-olds who report frequent anxiety has doubled in the past 30 years.

While we don’t know exactly why anxiety among children and teens is on the rise, one likely cause is the access our children have to the world around them through new technology—something no prior generation has experienced. Given access to others’ private lives via social media, life events like vacations or college admissions take on a new competitive edge, potentially leading to anxiety for young people who fear they will not measure
up to expectations.

Signs of Childhood and Adolescent Anxiety

Fears and worries are not only normal for children and teens to experience—they are essential for healthy development and growth. However, when worries become so common that they negatively impact day- to-day living, it can be a sign of anxiety disorder.

Unlike kids experiencing normal anxiety, children and teens with anxiety disorders suffer from severe worries that cannot be controlled and may result in problems in friendships, family relationships and school performance. They may appear to always be on edge, or express irrational fears about perceived threats that do not exist. Their fears may cause them to avoid certain places or situations. They may feel intense nervousness in social situations that prevents them from speaking up in class or interacting with peers.

Signs of childhood anxiety vary by age group. Younger children are more likely to show physical signs, like a headache or stomach ache that cannot be explained by a medical cause. Teens may become moody, pulling away from activities they once enjoyed. It’s important to seek out professional help if you find that your child is suffering in school, damaging relationships with family and friends, or harming themselves or others as a result of their anxiety.

Helping Children and Teens Manage Their Anxiety     

There are a number of ways parents can help their child deal with anxiety.

Parents should be aware of events that trigger fear in most children—such as an important test or a school dance. If a child seems particularly anxious as the event approaches, it’s best not to reinforce these fears by allowing him to opt out of the stressful activity. Instead, acknowledge the stress and offer coping mechanisms. These can include exercise such as running or biking, deep breathing, yoga and meditation. For older children, consider a temporary detox from social media if they are experiencing stress related to social activities with their peers.

For children with anxiety disorders, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been proven to reduce symptoms. CBT examines a child’s automatic, unhelpful thoughts, behaviors and feelings—such as “I am stupid” after failing a test—and challenges negative assumptions to create more positive thought patterns, which results in more positive behavior.

Finally, take a look at how you express your own feelings of anxiety. As James Baldwin said, “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” Children are perceptive. Therefore, parents should demonstrate how to cope with stress in healthy ways. If you feel in over your head, consider seeing a family therapist who can provide outside perspective about how your actions impact your child’s behavior—and can provide key resources to help with your child’s anxiety as well.

If your child or teen exhibits signs of an anxiety disorder and seems unable to cope, there are a number of ways to seek out professional help. Reaching out to your school counselor or family doctor is a great first step. BC

Dr. Kimberly Ann Gordon, Medical Director, The Mann Residential Treatment Center at Sheppard Pratt Health System; President of the American Psychiatric Association’s Caucus of Black Psychiatrists

Dr. Aronica Cotton, Educational Chief and Child & Adolescent Psychiatry Fellow, University of Maryland/Sheppard Pratt Combined Program

About Elizabeth Heubeck

Elizabeth Heubeck, a native of Baltimore, is a former editor of Baltimore's Child and the mother of two teenagers. Currently, she spends much of her spare time wishing she was a gourmet cook (or at least a solid short-order cook), hoping the piles of laundry would disappear and, in the warmer months, battling weeds in her flower beds.

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