According to a Pew Research Center survey, 70% of teenagers listed anxiety and depression as major issues among their peers. But anxiety isn’t just experienced by teenagers, nor is it something that only exists in one form. The Child Mind Institute notes that children can also struggle with issues such as separation anxiety, social anxiety, and generalized anxiety.
Like other mental health illnesses and conditions, anxiety can be misunderstood or not taken seriously by the public. It’s hard for a person to gauge the severity or frequency of how another individual experiences anxiety, and easy to misunderstand the scope and complexity of the condition. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), anxiety disorders affect 40 million adults in the United States each year. It’s an understated problem that can no longer be ignored, but the increasing number of children who suffer from severe anxiety is a little-discussed reality that must also be addressed.
Although society may perceive children as having little reason to experience anxiety, the opposite is true. The effects of school, family, peer pressure, hormones, and other factors can leave many children feeling apprehensive about their life experiences. Bullying can also serve as a catalyst for anxiety. According to Education Corner, 90% of students in grades four through eight have reported being bullied or harassed. With children facing so much pressure from peers, family, and themselves, it’s understandable how a child may feel constrained and overwhelmed.
Still, there are ways that teachers, administrators, parents, and educators can work to help children who may be facing anxiety so they can excel in school and live happy, fulfilling lives.
Before helping children with their anxiety issues, it’s important to understand the full scope of this mental health condition, its various forms, and how it affects children and students across the country.
What is anxiety?
According to Anxiety.org, “Anxiety disorders are characterized by a general feature of excessive fear (i.e., emotional response to perceived or real threat) and/or anxiety (i.e., worrying about a future threat) and can have negative behavioral and emotional consequences.”
In this sense, anyone can have anxiety about events or situations occurring in their day-to-day life. A student can have anxiety about an upcoming exam that counts for a large portion of the semester grade. An adult can have anxiety regarding certain bills or new job responsibilities.
But there’s a difference between occasional anxiety and anxiety that’s chronic, frequent, and severe. “If it’s an excessive, irrational dread of everyday situations, it can be disabling. When anxiety interferes with daily activities, you may have an anxiety disorder,” according to the ADAA. Anxiety.org defines the following types of anxiety disorders:
- Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). GAD is characterized by excessive worry about various items and events in day-to-day life.
- Panic disorder. Panic disorder is characterized by a sudden or frequent burst of panic and worry about potential future attacks.
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). OCD is characterized by intrusive obsessions over items or events in day-to-day life.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is characterized by recurring, often severe mental stress due to past trauma.
Specific anxiety disorders that can affect children include selective mutism, in which a child may be incapable of speaking comfortably in certain scenarios or to specific people, or phobias, in which a child is afraid of a particular object, concept, or event.
What are symptoms of anxiety?
Because anxiety can be a complex illness that affects mental health in different ways, its specific symptoms and severity may vary. But there are common symptoms that are frequently associated with anxiety conditions.
According to the Mayo Clinic, common anxiety disorder symptoms include feeling nervous or at unease, having a sense of dread or danger, sweating and trembling, having difficulty concentrating and sleeping, hyperventilating, or having gastrointestinal problems.
There are also symptoms that are frequently associated with specific anxiety disorders. Individuals with GAD may feel excessive worry or fear throughout daily life. Those with panic disorder may have difficulty breathing or chest and heart pains as they experience panic attacks. Anxiety itself may even be a symptom or an effect that is directly related to other health conditions, such as heart disease, thyroid issues, and respiratory disorders.
What is social anxiety?
Social anxiety is a type of anxiety disorder in which individuals have recurring fear of participating in social situations and how they may be evaluated by others. “The defining feature of social anxiety disorder, also called social phobia, is intense anxiety or fear of being judged, negatively evaluated, or rejected in a social or performance situation,” according to ADAA.
Individuals with social anxiety may fear that others may think negatively about them and worry that they’re perceived as unintelligent, awkward, boring, or even overly anxious. As a result, these individuals may avoid social interactions or group settings.
The ADAA states that social anxiety affects around 15 million adults and that the onset of this condition typically occurs in the teenage years. Many who have been diagnosed with social anxiety disorder report “extreme shyness” during childhood, the ADAA states, but shyness itself isn’t the same as social anxiety.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the signs and symptoms of social anxiety may include nervousness and sweating during social encounters, feeling nauseated when speaking with others, maintaining little eye contact and a rigid body posture, or being very self-conscious and fearful about being judged.
Anxiety in education
Anxiety and anxiety disorders can be especially prevalent among students of all ages, from the K-12 environment through college.
Anxiety in K-12 education
The causes of anxiety in children can be diverse, but they may also affect students in classrooms in specific ways.
“When a child is squirming in their seat and not paying attention, we tend to think of ADHD, but anxiety could also be the cause,” according to the Child Mind Institute. “When kids are anxious in the classroom, they might have a hard time focusing on the lesson and ignoring the worried thoughts overtaking their brains.”
The Child Mind Institute notes how anxiety may be an underlying factor for many issues that face children in schools, including bullying, disruptive behavior and tantrums, difficulty participating or answering questions in class, refusing to participate or having difficulty participating in group projects, and even frequent trips to the nurse and absences from school entirely.
The causes of anxiety in children can include biological and hereditary factors, such as anxiety being a recurring trait in families, according to the Boston Children’s Hospital. Environmental factors may also be a cause of anxiety, such as a child growing up in a high-stress household, living in an impoverished home, worrying about having enough food to eat, or having a verbally or physically abusive home life.
“Unlike adults, children usually don’t realize how intense or abnormal their feelings of anxiety have become. It can be difficult for a child to know that something is ‘wrong,’” according to Boston Children’s Hospital.
Anxiety on college campuses
Anxiety isn’t exclusive to children, and childhood anxiety can sometimes lead to anxiety during adulthood. In addition, a college environment can prevent many of the same stressors as a K-12 environment, along with unique scenarios that may trigger anxiety. Writing for The Conversation US, David Rosenberg states “research shows that nearly 1 in 5 university students are affected with anxiety or depression.”
Anxiety in traditional college students can be caused or worsened by numerous new stressors, including moving away from home, living with individuals they don’t know, feeling the pressure to succeed academically, and the fear or worry of new social encounters. These stressors and anxiety can also impair how college students perceive and identify themselves.
“When students head off to college, the familiar people are no longer there to reinforce the identity these students have created for themselves,” according to Hilary Silver, who was quoted in an article from the Jed Foundation. This can contribute to symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Even though there are facilities and resources available on many college campuses to help those who may be facing anxiety, students may be reluctant to use these services due to the stigma regarding mental health issues.
Online students also have multiple student support resources available to help them manage their anxiety — but they, much like their on-campus counterparts, may succumb to the unfair representation of mental illness and decide to go it alone.
“Students also might not seek help because of concerns over confidentiality or finances, as well as the fear that by accepting the fact that they’re struggling, it means they can’t lead a productive life,” according to the Jed Foundation. “Such concerns cause students to keep their emotional troubles to themselves, reinforcing the stigma and making life far more difficult than it need be.”
College may be the first time an individual experiences what may be a more long-term anxiety disorder. The ADAA states that 40 million adults “suffer from an anxiety disorder and 75% of them experience their first episode of anxiety by the age of 22,” right around the time when many college students are finishing or have just finished their undergraduate degree programs.
Tips and resources for addressing anxiety in children
Anxiety is a serious condition that affects millions of children and students across the country. But there are still ways that students, parents, teachers, and administrators can help these individuals live healthy, fulfilling lives.
Tips for students to address anxiety
For students who may be facing anxiety or an anxiety disorder, various coping strategies can help them address their affliction. The DAA recommends that in moments of anxiety, individuals can do things like take a break from a stressful activity, follow a nutritious eating regimen, get regular sleep and exercise, and limit alcohol and caffeine intake. For anxiety or anxiety disorders that may be more severe, students can speak with a mental health professional to discuss strategies to address and manage their anxiety. These professionals may work directly for a school, college, or university, or they may offer services at a hospital, clinic, or private practice.
Part of successfully helping students who have anxiety includes breaking down misconceptions and stigma regarding anxiety and mental health issues. Students can educate their peers who may not be fully informed about anxiety. This can help generate a stronger awareness of the condition and how it affects students nationwide.
Tips for parents to address a child’s anxiety
While parents may not be able to fully control or influence anxiety stressors or difficult situations that a child experiences at school, they can make a big impact at home. It’s important that parents respect the feelings of a child who may be experiencing anxiety, and not necessarily work to eliminate it.
“The best way to help kids overcome anxiety isn’t to try to remove stressors that trigger it. It’s to help them learn to tolerate their anxiety and function as well as they can, even when they’re anxious,” according to the Child Mind Institute. For example, if a child becomes stressed or anxious due to family friends visiting the home, parents should work to help the child through the difficult situation, rather than no longer inviting friends over or removing the child from the event entirely.
The Child Mind Institute also notes the importance of expressing realistic expectations, not reinforcing a child’s fears, and encouraging a child to tolerate anxiety.
The scope and severity of anxiety or an anxiety disorder may vary from child to child. Parents should be careful to understand exactly how anxiety is affecting their child. If it seems to be stopping their child from fully participating in life activities, parents should consider having the child speak with a mental health professional.
Additionally, parents can make teachers and educators aware of their child’s anxiety or anxiety disorder to ensure that the child’s mental health is being fully considered, even when they aren’t at home.
Tips for teachers to address a child’s anxiety
While parents can fully understand the extent and severity of their own child’s anxiety, teachers may not be initially aware of which students may be facing anxiety or how much it may be impacting their lives. Teachers, though, can still work to help children who may be facing anxiety.
In the Education Update newsletter, Jessica Minahan, a behavior analyst, recommends to writer Sarah McKibben that teachers be aware of potential signs of anxiety, but not to “diagnose” a child.
“The first thing to do if you’re worried about a student is to refer them to the student support team,” Minahan says. “Those mental health professionals will help you decide if [the student] needs testing and also exactly what to communicate with parents. From there, that team will help you determine next steps.”
Additionally, the article notes the importance of schools handling transitions with a student’s anxiety in mind, such as not collecting homework at the start of class; keeping workloads manageable; offering cognitive breaks or distractions, such as letting students get a drink of water and come back to class; or not applying labels to students who have anxiety or seem overly anxious.
“Anxiety is manifested in the classroom,” Golda Ginsburg, child psychologist and professor at the University of Connecticut, tells McKibben. “Take it seriously, and if you can’t provide students with help, connect with someone in the school who can.”
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