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Jacob Harrison remembers walking to school in fifth grade worrying about what he’d face at school each day. “I’d try to anticipate every possible scenario that might happen,” the now 21-year-old says. “By the time I got to school, I would already be anxious and on guard. It felt very defeating.”
What is anxiety?
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIH) reports that eight percent of teenagers have an anxiety disorder, with symptoms usually emerging around age 6. Mental health professionals believe the true number to be much higher however, since about 18 percent of teens are actually receiving mental health treatment.
Factor in a struggling economy, unemployment, and additional stress on parents, and anxiety in children becomes a serious social issue.
“We’re living in a very different time,” says Martha ‘Kip’ Smith, a licensed clinical social worker who works in Shelby County. “Kids are more structured than ever before. They don’t have a lot of time to explore their own creativity, there’s more competition today than there’s ever been for grades, looks, to be better, and to be smarter. It’s too much,” she says.
Jacob’s mom, Kim Nicole, says her son was first diagnosed with anxiety at age 6. Insomnia, fainting spells, hives, and excessive worry initially led Nicole to the doctor. Once in treatment, Jacob was diagnosed with anxiety as well as obsessive-compulsive disorder.
“It was horrible for him during the school year,” Nicole says. “He was bullied mercilessly, had panic attacks, and still today has self-esteem issues.”
When worry isn’t normal
Smith explains that feeling some anxiety is normal — when anticipating a test, a new job, or a new school, for example. Anxiety becomes a problem, however, when it starts to interfere with regular, day-to-day activities.
“I noticed when other kids got teased or got a bad grade, they just let it roll off their back,” says Harrison. “But when it came to me, I became obsessed with it. I internalized everything.”
Smith uses the word FEAR, an acronym for False Events Appear Real, as a way of describing how people with anxiety perceive reality. “We project dragons out in the world and our body secretes fear hormones based on those false events,” she says. “That’s anxiety.”
As with most mental health issues, anxiety falls along a spectrum. Many children and families are helped with talk therapy and coping strategies. However, some children may need to see a pediatric psychiatrist to discuss medication options.
Although many people told Nicole her son would outgrow his condition, she instead sought treatment through a licensed counselor and together they began therapy. Smith agrees that any therapy for childhood anxiety must include the whole family.
“A good therapist will tell the parents at the front end ‘If I’m going to work with your child, then I’m going to have to also work with you,’” she says. “As a therapist, I need to be sure the parents are on board with whatever the therapeutic homework is.”
Therapists initially depend on a parent’s report of the symptoms they are seeing in their child. Physical signs include irritability and withdrawl as well abrupt changes in eating and sleeping patterns. Smith says while girls are more apt to reach out to female friends, boys are less verbal and tend to keep their feelings to themselves. “A fearful child can look like an angry child,” she adds.
Harrison says he tried to explain to other kids and adults that he felt different. But he didn’t have the right words to describe what it was like becoming extremely emotional, sweating, having a racing heart, and feeling light-headed over what others considered a minor incidence.
“It’s hard to cope with anxiety, when anxiety is what hinders your ability to cope,” says Harrison.
Anxiety in children isn’t something a child can ignore or toughen up over. Anxiety is a chemical reaction to a real or perceived problem. Even if the problem isn’t a legitimate concern to others, the anxious child’s body is still releasing the fight-or-flight hormones causing a reaction in his or her body.
“For the anxious child or the OCD child, the root cause is the nervous system is running too hot,” says Smith. “The solution is unique to each child. Some children can learn to regulate that through behavioral change and some will need medicine and behavioral change. It’s like working a puzzle.”
Tips for Helping Your Anxious Child
- Stay calm when your child becomes anxious.
- Don’t punish or ridicule your child’s concerns, even if you think they are unfounded.
- Try to keep a normal routine so your child knows what to expect.
- Be flexible during stressful periods.
- Plan ahead for times that could be difficult for your child (mornings before school, an upcoming test).
- Have your child seen by a therapist to learn other ways of helping him or her cope.
Source: The Anxiety and Depression Association of America