With growing pressures at school relating to an increased workload and social media, more children and young adults are suffering from anxiety than ever before.
At a parenting program held at Shaker Junior High School Tuesday, Feb. 4, psychologist Melissa A. Them spoke with parents about how to help their children cope with anxiety.
“Anxiety — everybody on the planet has it, most of us don’t care for it. Except that having anxiety is a really important part of human functioning,” said Them. “It’s normal to have stress, and stress can serve us quite well.”
But Them said there is a balance that needs to be reached there.
“What we don’t want to do, is to have it take over us and make living our every day lives problematic,” she said.
The Anxiety and Depressions association of America states that anxiety disorders now affect one in eight children. Many studies show this is a trend that has been increasing over the past 25 years. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, this is also an issue that is more likely to affect girls and young women, with 30 percent of women and 20 percent of men likely to develop an anxiety disorder in their lifetime.
The causes range from extra stresses at school to an increasingly violent society, and local school officials said they are seeing its effects more and more.
“We’ve seen a real increase in kids with anxiety in the past few years — a definite increase,” said Stacey Angell, a school counselor at Shaker. “There’s a lot of causes for the anxiety; increased pressure to perform at school with their academics, and there are increased pressures from society before they’re developmentally ready.”
Angell said that incidents like Sandy Hook and around-the-clock coverage of natural disasters expose children to catastrophes that they aren’t mature enough to handle or process.
“They’re exposed to horrific events from society,” Angell said.
Them said anxiety is a part of life and is essential in protecting humans. It is part of the fight or flight response to dangerous or uncomfortable experiences. She said children begin to develop anxiety around seven months old in what is called “stranger anxiety.” This is where a child becomes upset when they meet someone new or an unfamiliar person holds them.
Around the time children turn 7, they start to worry about real fears, like fires, burglars or natural disasters. This is around the time children go through D.A.R.E or have fire prevention week at school.
“We’re telling them that these things exist in the world, and we want them to be aware of them, but in this age when we start to tell them about these things, they start to really take them on and hold on to them,” said Them. “They get scared about this stuff. But these are passing phases. They’re excited about fire safety week until about a week after fire safety week.”
The next transition children make is around the time they turn 12, and that’s when they start to make social comparisons regarding their academic and athletic performances. This is normal and helps young adults develop a desire to improve their skills and try harder.
Around 14 years old, teenagers become more concerned with social issues and moral issues, which is where social media has really taken a toll on young adults still in the early stages of development and discovering their own identity. They are also dealing with the stresses of passing exams and acceptance to college that is normal and healthy.
Many stresses growing up are normal so it can be hard to tell when anxiety has become an issue.
“You’re child can have anxiety about any number of things. It’s not about the content of the anxiety, but about how pervasive the anxiety is,” said Them.
Some signs anxiety could be that every time your child is faced with a challenge, he or she chooses to avoid that challenge, such as not wanting to go to school. If a child seeks constant reassurance and no matter what they are told they are still anxious, then they may have too much anxiety.
In severe cases, children will become nauseous, vomit, have headaches and avoid school. Parents often become frustrated because they can’t seem to help their child cope with the issues they are having.
Social anxiety can be caused by a lot of things, and psychologists believe increased use of social networking and cell phones is one of the main causes. Kids are constantly connected and start to judge themselves and worry when they aren’t part of group messages or if other kids don’t comment on their pictures or statuses. The constant connection can create separation anxiety when kids aren’t able to respond to text messages.
If your child appears lonely and anxious or doesn’t like lunch or gym class, which is typically the most enjoyable parts of the day for students, they may be suffering from anxiety. They could also be withdrawing due to cyber bullying.
Them said that if you are paying for the cell phone or Internet, as a parent, it is your job to monitor these things as well as set limits on how much time your child has with their cell phone. It is best to keep cell phones out of the bedroom because they can distract children from sleeping.
To help ease the problems of anxiety, it is best to have rigid routines and a healthy amount of sleep. Family dinners, without cell phones or TV are a good way to talk to children and find out what is going on in their life.
One of the parents at the Feb. 4 meeting was concerned with how to deal with a 12-year-old that would start to worry before bedtime, causing the child to miss out on sleep. Them said that starting the conversation earlier will help the child wind down before bedtime.
At school, teachers are looking to find ways to help relieve the stresses of a demanding workload.
“Teachers are working hard to balance pressures of what they have to do to meet a student’s needs academically and working with the student to meet their needs as a whole student,” said Angell.
She said the most important thing is letting children know it’s OK to act their age.
“They should have more time to be kids,” said Angell. “Their plates are very full with academics and social and emotional pressures; they need a little less pressure and a little more time to be kids.”