Anxiety in Children and Teens – Mental Health Topic

I was in the doctor’s office one morning last month and I picked up a WEBMD magazine. One of the articles was entitled: Why are kids so stressed?

I thought, “That’s interesting”.

That’s something I deal with in every child and teenager that I see in my practice in Rogers, Arkansas. Anxiety disorders affect one in 8 children according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

So, if there are 20 children in a classroom at least two or three will be affected by high anxiety.


Stress and Anxiety in Arkansas?

The American Psychological Association’s Stress in America survey finds that high school students report stress levels that top the stress levels of most adults. More than half of the college students surveyed by The American College Health Association reported that they have felt “overwhelming anxiety”. I can’t help but imagine some of those college students came from our own University of Arkansas campuses in Fayetteville and Fort Smith.

What a sad thought!

Dr. Sandra Hassink, the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, named stress as the single most important health issue facing children today.

That seems to be just as true here as it is nationally.


Understanding Mental Health and Anxiety

So, what is stress and anxiety and where is all of this coming from? And what can we do to alleviate stress and anxiety in our own lives and the lives of our teens?

The National Institute for Mental Health defines stress as the brain’s response to any demand. There are many triggers to stress and stress is not always negative. Stress happens and we respond and “get things done”. Stress pushes us into action.

If anyone is an under pressure worker, they can relate.

I work best right before a deadline. I require more stress to complete a task. So stress is necessary. It is chronic stress, which continues after the “getting things done”, that is dangerous and can cause problems.

There are three types of stress:

  1. Routine stress: This is the stress of daily life: What will we wear? Will we win the game? Do I have my homework in my backpack?
  2. Sudden negative change: A breakup, a divorce in the family, a broken arm
  3. Traumatic Stress: A serious accident or physical emotional trauma.

Continued stress, over time, may result in physical problems, depression or an anxiety disorder.


A Day in the Life of an Arkansas Teen (with Stress!)

So, let’s consider a “normal” child or teen who attends school here in Northwest Arkansas (NWA), and what routine stress looks like for them.

They get up in the morning early enough for the bus. Mom reminds them of activities for the day: This may include a dance, cheer, tennis lesson, a game, a test. Most likely this teen’s parent works, so there are instructions for any home chores and responsibilities. Then there is either a noisy school bus or traffic.

Then we arrive at school in Rogers or Bentonville. Facing peers who are also stressed, and the standards by which the peer group expects the child to live by. Dress expectations, behavioral expectations, social expectations… Then there are classes to attend.

And we haven’t hit on relationships yet!

Boyfriends, girlfriends, peer groups, teams, teachers. An American teen is a busy person whose life is extremely stressful. An American child has a busy schedule with many stressors. At my daughter’s “cheer” place I have seen 4 year olds competing.

And note, recess and play have taken a back seat in most schools.


The Teen Brain and Anxiety

Interestingly, children and teenagers are not really built to handle all of this stress.

In a NY Times article entitled “ Why Teenagers Act Crazy” Dr. Richard Friedman of Weill Cornell Medical College states that teenagers are in a particularly challenging psychological position. They are in the midst of natural separation from their parents and striving for acceptance into a peer group outside the family.

These two things are very anxiety provoking. Just like two year olds venture forth when they begin to walk independently, are tentative and often fall and cry, teens are experiencing the same type of insecurity and independence.

It’s hard!

What makes it even harder is the fact that the adolescent brain is not ready for these challenges. The adolescent brain is wired with an advanced capacity for fear and anxiety because their amygdala is well developed. The amygdala is responsible for fight/flight response.

So, a teen has a very highly developed survival sense, which enables him to fear.

But their prefrontal cortex is NOT fully developed, which means that they do not have a very well developed capacity to reason and to deal with fear. Largely because of a quirk of brain development, adolescents, on average, experience more anxiety and fear and have a harder time learning how not to be afraid than either children or adults.

So, our teens don’t know how to calmly reason. They are not yet wired to do that.

The prefrontal cortex will be fully developed when they are 25-26 years old. The result is that teens have less ability to modulate and regulate their emotion.

To add insult to injury, the pleasure center of the brain is very well developed in teens as well, which accounts for their high incidence of risk-taking and experimentation.

It’s no wonder that it is difficult to be a teen!

So, what happens in the teen brain when there is undue or prolonged stress is that they experience threats and respond with anxiety, which is a normal reaction. But, when the person has a difficult time re-evaluating the threat and calming down when the threat has passed, anxiety takes over. This re-evaluation process is the job of the prefrontal cortex, which is not fully developed.


More on Anxiety and Stress

Anxiety is the experience of threat in the absence of threat. Adolescents are uniquely vulnerable to anxiety.

The National Association of School Psychologists place anxiety in four categories: Behavioral inhibition or shyness, which is a personality thing; learned behavior, which comes from observing others who are anxious, exposure to fear in others; Thinking styles or excessive worry, and environmental factors, which can be a stressful environment, a traumatic event, or overly protective and controlling parents.

Anxiety also may be genetic or inherited. Children are more likely to be anxious if both parents exhibit the symptoms. Signs of anxiety include: Feelings of fear, discomfort and being “not enough”; physically feeling on edge; avoidance and withdrawal behaviors; and difficulty concentrating, negativity and being unrealistic. Younger children are not being pulled into independence as teens are, but many are very motivated to please, to achieve, to be the best. Overbooking these kiddos is doing them a disservice.

So, let’s take some pressure off our children. Let’s allow them more downtime and rest.

As parents and teachers, let’s resolve to allow our children to be children, and recognize that growing up is not easy.


What do I do next?

If your child is experiencing some of the symptoms mentioned above please don’t hesitate to seek a counselor who can help both you and them to navigate this growing up time.

We at Fresh Roots Family Counseling are ready to help you with this and any other areas of concern for you and your (stressed out) family! Let us help you today!