It is estimated that today almost one in twenty children and one in six teenagers in the U.S. suffer from some form of anxiety and/or depression. We spoke with Albert John Sargent, MD, Chief of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Tufts Children's Hospital at Tufts Medical Center to understand why the anxiety rates in children may have risen over the past decade and how parents and caregivers can be of support and help.
Q: What makes today’s youth more prone to anxiety?
A: When we are vulnerable, coping with anxiety can feel impossible, and vulnerability is at its height during childhood. If a child is unable to avoid situations that make him or her feel anxious, the child can start to feel inadequate. We are seeing that social media can increase anxiety as it leaves children more vulnerable than ever before.
Q: What can be done to prevent or reduce the risk of a child developing anxiety?
A: Help your children find activities that will slow them down especially at the end of a long and busy day - family dinners to reconnect with your child and talk are a great idea. It’s also very important to limit screen time and social media. Routine and organization in your home can help children feel in control and calmer. The more we unclutter our lives, the better we l feel, hence the better our children will feel.
Q: When does anxiety develop and why?
A: Anxiety can affect children as young as three years old. A child is unable to process the difference between fear and danger at a young age, so they look to their parents. Many times, an anxious child also has an anxious parent, so genetics could be a factor. A child’s environment is also a large factor in the development of an anxiety disorder. Children can pick up on stressful situations at home and although it’s important to be honest, your own anxiety can make a child worry.
Q: What are some signs of anxiety?
A: The following are signs of anxiety:
- Unwilling to participate in things previously enjoyed
- Problems with peers
- Avoiding family activities and/or social situations
- Trouble sleeping
- Excessive fears or fears that lead to avoiding necessary obligations
- Problems with separation
- Physical pain including frequent stomach aches or headaches
Q: How can you tell the difference between nerves and a true anxiety disorder?
A: There can be excitement and adrenaline behind some worries, which can actually produce positive results. For example, a child about to go on stage or compete for a medal in a competition can use their adrenaline supplied by their body’s natural fear instinct to produce superior results. But on the other end of the spectrum, the body’s reaction to fear can cripple a child and send them into a panic, making it impossible for a person to achieve those positive moments/milestones in life that are necessary for development.
A body’s response to fear and danger is what causes anxiety. When anxiety interferes with your day to day function, it could be a disorder. An example of this is a young adult being unable to go off to college because of the crippling fear of social situations rather than simply feeling nervous about living away from his/her parents and what they already know. If this becomes the case, parents should consult their child’s pediatrician or consult a mental health professional directly for an evaluation.
Make an appointment with a mental health specialist at the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry here.