Anxiety in Kids: What Parents Need to Know

Behavior and Discipline, Featured Article, Growth and Development

Adolescence can be tough, even for the most self-assured children. In fact, most adults can probably remember bouts of awkwardness with bad haircuts and braces, and futile attempts to fit in with the cool kids and appeal to the opposite sex.

Indeed, some childhood anxiety is perfectly normal (and expected), but according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), one in eight children suffer from an anxiety disorder. For these kids, life doesn’t get easier as time goes by, and the ADAA website states that “research shows that untreated children with anxiety disorders are at higher risk to perform poorly in school, miss out on important social experiences, and engage in substance abuse.”

Is Your Child Suffering?
Licensed psychologist and nationally certified school psychologist Stephanie Mihalas, Ph.D., agrees that some level of anxiety is inherent in childhood, and she also notes that parents can often “over dramatize” or “over react” to this normal behavior. That said, it is still important for parents to be aware when symptoms become more serious.

“Because children often have a much harder time verbalizing how they feel or identifying their specific feelings or thoughts, issues such as anxiety tend to be expressed behaviorally, especially for younger children,” explains Mihalas. “Parents should watch for signs of severe or prolonged fears of going places, such as school or public places; being around or in front of people; specific phobias such as spiders or heights; or panic attack symptoms, such as shortness of breath, racing heartbeat, sweating, trembling or feeling dizzy, as well as severe separation anxiety [including] intense fears of being/sleeping alone or excessive tantrums when a parent leaves.”

Also, adds Mihalas, “Children often experience or describe psychological symptoms as bodily sensations, such as frequent and unexplained upset stomach, headaches or other physical complaints.”

For older children or teens, the symptoms may present differently, especially when considered in the context of extracurricular activities. According to Lisa Bahar, a marriage and family therapist, warning signs can include irritability, irregular sleeping patterns, over- or under-eating, lack of enthusiasm or, conversely, over-commitment to projects, sports or other activities, with an intense need to perform well.

Know Your Role
Spotting the symptoms of anxiety or depresson and recognizing a hurting child are only two parts of the path to healing. Providing adequate treatment is critical.

Often, says Bahar, there is a strong correlation between parent and child anxiety levels. “How the family caregivers deal with stress is indicative to how children will deal with stress; therefore, treatment for the symptoms in many cases is the whole family, versus just the child,” she explains. “Keep in mind this is not always the case; it is just more prevalent than not from what I have experienced.”

Bahar suggests that in addition to examining their own anxiety triggers, parents should consider any undue pressure they may be (unknowingly) putting on their child. “In many cases, parents’ enthusiasm and desire for the child to succeed can be interpreted as pressure,” says Bahar. “Are you living a dream through the child; do you have a desire to have your child be the ‘star’? This is difficult since parents are in many cases part of the anxiety and feel very defensive about being part of the problem.”

Parenting pressures are very real, and Mihalas advises moms and dads to be proactive in taking care of themselves before any feelings of stress or anxiety can take hold and be projected onto their children. “Whether it’s a morning walk or jog, a weekly yoga class or hike, lunch with friends or dedicated quiet time where they can be alone, it is crucial that parents proactively build self-care into their lives just as they build enriching activities into the life of their child.”

Search for Other Sources
Outside of the immediate family unit, anxiety or depression can come from a child’s peer group, especially in today’s social media age. “On the one hand, research has found that social media use can enhance the social relationships of teens whose social lives were already positive,” says Mihalas. “On the other hand, social media can provide a significant avenue for cyberbullying victimization and online harassment.  Media reports abound of teens being victimized by bullies via social media, and for many teens this kind of cyberbullying may be just as harmful as bullying that occurs on school grounds.”

Parents should monitor the attitude and emotions of their child immediately following social media use to determine whether it is, in fact, an anxiety trigger. “If social media use seems to consistently or frequently spark negative feelings in the youth, then it might be a good idea for parents to investigate further,” says Mihalas. “Developing an ongoing, two-way, open conversation about social media use with your child is crucial to staying in the loop about your child’s social life.”

In addition to heavy social media use, another characteristic of today’s on-the-go, socially connected kids is a tendency toward poor eating habits. And while it may seem unlikely, an affinity for junk food can just as easily trigger emotional distress.

“There is now much research supporting this powerful food-mood connection,” says Trudy Scott, a certified nutritionist and author of the Antianxiety Food Solution. “If the family and children are not eating real whole foods and are eating any boxed and processed foods, it’s very likely that food is a factor. It may be the whole factor or just part of the equation.”

The first steps to establishing an anti-anxiety diet for kids are to remove sugar, caffeine and gluten from the diet and keep a detailed log that tracks the effects of the changes on mood, sleep, digestion and focus, says Scott. And she also recommends adding protein at breakfast. “Protein contains amino acids, zinc and iron, all of which are so crucial for manufacturing brain chemicals, like serotonin (our feel-happy neurotransmitter) and GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid, a calming neurotransmitter), and hence improving both anxiety and depression.”

When to Seek Professional Help
While parents certainly can—and should—take an active role in assessing and treating their child’s anxiety or depression, they should not be afraid to seek professional help when necessary. Talking to a school counselor or enlisting the services of a family therapist is a step that should definitely be considered when symptoms fail to improve. In the end, the future of their child depends on it.


Additional Reading & Resources

Why Smart Kids Worry and What Parents Can Do to Help
By Allison Edwards, LPC

Stress Free Kids: A Parent’s Guide to Helping Build Self-Esteem, Manage Stress and Reduce Anxiety in Children
By Lori Lite

Stress Free Kids

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