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Why anxiety is increasingly common in kids, early warning signs—and the gentle fixes that help them


Anxiety is normal—until it’s not. All kids feel nervous about something: monsters under the bed, bad storms, giving a speech. Increasingly, though, anxiety is spiraling to debilitating, even dangerous, degrees in children and teens. And often, their struggles get worse before they’re noticed and helped.

A big reason anxiety simmers under the radar is that these kids tend to get good grades and are liked by others, says psychologist Brendan Pratt, PhD, of the Pratt Center in Los Altos, California. “An anxious kid tends to be well-behaved, meticulous, cares about school, follows rules, and wants to please people,” he says.

The problem: They put intense pressure on themselves to not only do well but be perfect. And their expectations and perceptions are often disconnected from what’s accurate or realistic, he says.

Experts aren’t sure why more kids than ever have anxiety disorders, though genetics and environment both have roles. One sure factor: Today’s kids have more to cope with (from the college chase to social media) at the same time they have fewer release valves (like downtime, nature, and practice developing coping skills). As busy school days amp up, there’s even more stress and fewer outlets for it.

WHO GETS ANXIETY DISORDERS?

  • One in eight kids

  • One in four teens

  • Slightly more girls than boys (by high school)

  • Children whose parents are anxious

What can we parents do, besides feel anxious ourselves? These 10 strategies can really make a difference:

Watch for early warning signs.

Because anxiety has so many strengths associated with it, it’s easily overlooked. “I often hear, ‘Why is she so anxious? She’s good at tests!’” Pratt says. “But that’s why these kids often get good grades: because they’re so anxious. A child may get all ‘A’s but is cutting herself because of all the stress.”

Know what to look out for: A healthy child suddenly gets chronic stomachaches or has trouble sleeping. Or starts having bad headaches but only on school days. Or eagerly goes off to school each day but begs to stay home on what you later learn was a test day. “It’s seemingly unrelated things you wouldn’t really notice until a pattern becomes apparent,” Pratt says.

Problems tend to pick up during transition stages, like starting middle or high school. “I love it when we catch it by middle school, because kids’ grades in 6th to 8th grade don’t matter much. What matters is skill development,” he adds. “Even in high school, grades don’t matter as much as developing the skills for college.”

MORE SIGNS OF ANXIETY IN KIDS

  • Worrying often that things will go wrong

  • Ruminating

  • Avoiding group activities or meeting new people

  • Fearing minor changes in routine

  • Being rigid and perfectionistic

  • Using obsessive behaviors to manage anxiety

  • Over-sensitivity to teacher criticism

  • Mind “goes blank” when called on in class

Instead of saying, “Don’t worry,” help your child figure out when to worry.

“I tell kids the goal isn’t to eliminate all anxiety (which is impossible!); it’s to make it work for them,” Pratt says. “After all, a little anxiety motivates you to study. It’s having too much anxiety that makes you panic.” Talk through assignments: Is a worksheet worth the same amount of prep as a final paper? Can you study less for a weekly quiz than a final exam?

“Kids with anxiety like having rules that make sense; they’re very good at rules,” Pratt says. Say your child won’t ever eat leftovers because he’s afraid they’re spoiled. Break it down to put the fear in perspective: “Let’s learn about each ingredient and when they spoil. Okay, mayo is in that. Maybe we should toss it. Rice? It’s okay.

Instead of fixating on grades, focus on strengths.

As parents, we too often get tunnel vision about “good grades,” and kids pick up on this. Yet it’s your child’s individual strengths—persistence, love of reading, for example—not her test scores, that will make her happy and successful in life.

Better: Really think about what she’s good at, so you can truly show you value those traits and skills. Is your child great at patience or compassion? Funny? A persistent problem solver or a loyal friend? Talented at dancing or cooking or drawing? Support this fuller picture of your child by the things you say and do.

Give your child practice becoming his or her own advocate.

If you’re still doing all the talking at your 10-year-old’s checkups or ordering food for a 15-year-old at a restaurant, you’re not doing your child any favors. By 9 or 10, or sooner, your child should be getting practice talking to doctors, wait staff, store clerks, and others.

Ditto with school issues. “When my son needs help, we brainstorm solutions that start with him, like whether he should email the teacher and what he thinks he should say or ask,” Pratt says.