Anxiety is probably the most common behavioral health complaint that presents in the pediatrician’s office. The prevalence of anxiety is going up every year, and we do not have a good understanding why. Is it the pressure to perform at earlier and earlier ages? Is it the press of information or rapid communication of every disaster on Earth? Or are children not developing appropriate coping skills for the expectable challenges and stresses they will face through development? We do not know.
Anxiety disorders are most likely to present in the early school years – latency – between the ages of 6 and 12 years. Teenagers may present with new anxiety disorders or may disclose symptoms that they have been quietly managing since they were younger, when they were thought to be “shy.” These disorders include separation anxiety disorder, social phobia, selective mutism, specific phobia, and generalized anxiety disorder. This age period also is marked by high levels of normal anxiety because children’s cognitive development has advanced beyond their emotional development. They are capable of logic, can understand cause and effect, and can appreciate the passage of time and serious matters such as the permanence of death. Gone is the magical thinking of the preschool years! When an elementary student learns about global warming or a refugee crisis, they can fully appreciate the serious implications of the subject. What they lack is experience with tolerating uncertainty and worry and proceeding with life, focusing on what they might address or even bearing the fact that life is sometimes unfair. This mismatch of relative cognitive maturity with emotional immaturity can lead to anxiety and distress. This is particularly true as they face these challenges while they have new independence, spending longer days at school and less time with parents. Bearing this distress with caring adults, learning to focus on what they can do, and discovering that they and the world can go on even when something very unfair has happened is central to how they develop emotional maturity.
How a child learns to manage anxiety is very much determined by how their parents manage anxiety and how well their parents can tolerate their children’s distress. A parent who becomes overwhelmed when their child is upset about missing a goal in soccer will have a difficult time helping their child learn how to manage distress. And children who are facing chronic severe stress, such as poverty, domestic violence, or chronic illness in a parent, are facing the double challenge of managing persistent anxiety that may be impairing their parents’ ability to support them. When the child and their family are connected to a community that has not been able to effectively respond to larger problems, such as creating safe schools or neighborhoods, anxiety can become entrenched in despair.
It often is tempting to jump in with reassurance when your patient or their parents present with anxiety. But when you calmly show curiosity, you model tolerance of their distress. Are they fearful about very specific situations, such as being called on in class? Or do they become dysregulated when facing a separation from their parents, such as at bedtime or before school, seeking contact with their parents with endless questions? Find out how the parents are managing separations and whether they may be inadvertently rewarding by staying with them to negotiate or answer endless questions. Find out if parents may be accommodating anxiety by allowing their children to avoid normal situations that are stirring anxiety. Do they give in anytime their child shows resistance or have they learned to pick their battles and help their children face more-modest stress while avoiding only the most intensely anxious situations? Are the parents able to speak calmly and with good humor about these challenges or do they become very stressed and defensive? Is there a family history of anxiety? Managing a child’s anxiety every day can be exhausting, and parents might need a referral in addition to a discussion about how anxiety is developmentally normal.
For those parents that can manage this discussion, suggest that, like you, if they can remain calm during these times with their child (even if they don’t feel calm), it will help their child get better at managing anxiety, even if their child has an anxiety disorder. They also should be curious about their child’s worries, learning about the details and scenarios their children may be anticipating. They should express compassion about how uncomfortable anxiety is, coupled with their confident belief that the child will be able to tolerate and manage the situation even though it’s uncomfortable. This acknowledgment should not be a dismissal of the anxiety, instead it should be confidence that the child will learn to bear it.
When your patient is a teenager describing anxiety, unpack. Are they anxious about their performance on their five Advanced Placement exams? If their anxiety sounds more like appropriate stress, be compassionate and then curious about how they are learning to relax. Are they using drugs and alcohol? Or have they found healthy ways to unwind and recharge? Focusing on ways in which they are learning to care for themselves, making time for sleep and exercise, live time with friends, and senseless fun is therapeutic. Find out if their parents are supportive of their self-care. You might even give them a prescription!
Anxiety is often a private experience, and parents might not know about it until it presents with an explosion of distress or obstinacy when an anxious child is pushed into scary territory. Asking questions about specific worries (something happening to parents, germs, weather events) can illuminate the extent of anxiety. It also is worth exploring if there are rituals that help them manage their worries, whether they are common (finding a parent, hugging a pet, prayer) or more compulsive (repetitive undoing, hair pulling). Find out if there has recently been any serious stress or change for the family, such as the loss of a job or illness in a grandparent, that may be contributing to a child’s anxiety.
Anytime you see anxieties that are broad or extreme, disrupt their ability to function (go to school, participate in activities, build friendships), or if their parents are clearly struggling with managing their child’s distress, it is worthwhile to find a referral to a psychiatrist or psychologist for evaluation and further treatment. School avoidance constitutes an urgent need for evaluation, as every day of school missed makes it harder for the child to return to school. For all of your anxious patients, even when you make a referral to a psychiatrist for evaluation, teach your patients and parents about how critical adequate sleep and regular exercise are to managing anxiety. Remind them that an appropriate level of anxiety is normal and promotes performance and grit, despite the discomfort, and that learning how to manage anxiety is essential to growing up and building mental health.
Dr. Swick is physician in chief at Ohana Center for Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health, Community Hospital of the Monterey (Calif.) Peninsula. Dr. Jellinek is professor emeritus of psychiatry and pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, Boston. Email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.