Life is stressful; you don’t need me to tell you that! Today’s world is full of competition, jam-packed schedules, and a constant need to have and do more. Levels of anxiety are on the rise—not just for adults, but for children and teenagers as well. Although having some stress and worry is a normal part of growing up, elevated levels of anxiety can be indicative of a more serious anxiety disorder. As parents, it is important to recognize the signs in your children and learn ways to teach them to manage their stress and anxiety.
Anxiety can be caused by a combination of genetic, biological, and environmental factors. Everyone worries and gets stressed, but some people are predisposed to develop an anxiety disorder. Anxiety can be triggered by a traumatic event, or it can seemingly arise out of nowhere. Many people who have anxiety may experience it when starting a new school, taking a big test, or in anticipation of a big event. Others may have trouble with social situations, while some may have specific fears. Anxiety is increasingly common among young people, affecting approximately one in eight children under the age of 18.
But why is anxiety on the rise? Social media may be playing a role in the uptick. Children and teenagers are seeing their peers’ lives on display every minute of every day. Constantly seeing one another’s social lives, successes, and achievements puts added pressure on young people to “measure up,” and subsequently, they fear they will not be able to compete or meet expectations. This adds more anxiety to a world already full of competition and stress.
Signs to Look For
Anxiety and fear are healthy, normal parts of development. But, if your child is experiencing anxiety in a way that interferes with daily life and impacts relationships, school functioning, and physical health, it may mean they are experiencing an anxiety disorder.
Children experience anxiety differently than adults, and may not have the words to explain exactly what they are feeling. As a parent, it is important to look out for warning signs. For example, young children may seem fearful and refuse to sleep in their own rooms or be away from their parents. While those may be obvious symptoms, anxiety presents in many other ways as well. Childhood anxiety often manifests as complaints of stomach aches or headaches. Young children may have irrational fears of things that do not exist. Children may also be disruptive in school. Older children and teens may appear moody and lose interest in activities they once enjoyed. They may worry constantly and start to have low self-esteem, or be irritable and restless. Anxiety can also result in substance use or sleep disturbances.
What You Can Do
If you start to notice these symptoms in your child, and see an impact on school, relationships, and/or family life, you should seek professional help. Left untreated, anxiety can result in low school performance, poor social interactions, and a risk of self-harm.
As a parent, you can help your child manage their anxiety. Here are some tips for helping your child:
- Learn what may be causing their anxiety. Sometimes a certain event can trigger anxiety, and if you can identify what that event is—a test, social event, sporting event, the news, etc.—you can help your child prepare for it in a positive way, and provide coping skills to get through it. It is best not to allow your child to skip what is causing their stress, but to help them work through their fears and learn how to process them.
- Teach your child coping skills. As a parent, you can help guide your child towards techniques that may work to ease their anxiety and stress. Common ways to help manage anxiety include exercise, walking, yoga, meditation, breathing techniques, and journaling. Older children and teenagers may find that taking a break from social media can help as well.
- Model positive behavior. As James Baldwin said, “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” Your children are always watching you, and are prone to imitating your actions. Practice healthy behaviors and coping strategies at home to encourage your children to do the same. You can also talk to behavior specialists or therapists to get ideas on how to manage your and your child’s behavior.
- Don’t be afraid to seek professional help. If you feel you or your child would benefit from therapy or medication, do not hesitate to reach out for help from your child’s doctor, a school counselor, or a mental health professional. There are many treatment options available that are effective in managing anxiety.
Do you have specific questions about anxiety in children, or want more tips for helping your child? I will be giving a free community talk on Wednesday, May 3 at 6:30 p.m. at The Conference Center at Sheppard Pratt. Click here to learn more.
Kimberly Gordon, M.D., FAPA, medical director of the Berkeley and Eleanor Mann Residential Treatment Center, is a board certified child and adolescent psychiatrist specializing in the treatment of anxiety disorders.