Back to School Anxiety

Disclosure :: this post is sponsored by Children’s Hospital. 

anxietyAs many of our young students head back to school, it is an important time to check in with anxiety disorders and the impact they can have on the various aspects of their academic and social lives.

Although ADHD and depression are often highlighted in the media, anxiety disorders are actually the most prevalent of all the disorders young people (as well as adults) experience. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, as many as 25% of 13 to 18 year olds may suffer from an anxiety disorder at any given time. This can truly take a toll of their overall performance and well-being.

The Most Common Anxiety Disorders in School Age Children

Some of the most common anxiety disorders in school age children are separation anxiety disorder, general anxiety disorder and social anxiety disorder. Let’s briefly take a look at each of these disorders in turn.

Separation anxiety disorder is often first on the scene and is exemplified by a child struggling with excessive worry and fear about leaving a caregiver to be in the classroom “alone.” Children with separation anxiety disorder can cry, have temper tantrums and other dramatic physical reactions when it is time to “let go” and get started with the school day. They often worry about the well-being and safety of their caregivers while they are away from them.

Children with generalized anxiety disorder are our little “worry warts.” They are constantly fretting and fearing about all the different things in their lives. Children and adolescents with generalized anxiety disorder worry excessively about assignments, future and past events and a host of other things. This often makes it hard for them to sleep at night, concentrate, and can generally lead to them being irritable, tense and just plain worn out. In addition, they can suffer from a variety of physical symptoms including headaches, chest pain, stomach pain and even bowel or bladder issues, triggered by their anxious states.

Social anxiety disorder often comes on later in a child’s development and involves significant fear surrounding embarrassment in social situations, meeting new people and being the center of attention during participation or presentations. Public speaking and class presentations can terrify young people with this disorder.

Excessive fear and worry that truly impairs the quality of a child or adolescent’s life is a common factor of all anxiety disorders. Often, children with anxiety disorders have caregivers who suffer from them as well, borrowing from the expression “the apple doesn’t fall far from the (genetic) tree.”

How to Treat Anxiety Disorders in School Age Children

One of the first steps in treating these disorders is to recognize how common they are. “Checking in” with children about their feelings, shyness, fears of separation and overall worry and anxiety can help you to become aware that your child is experiencing symptoms of anxiety. It helps to “check in with ourselves” as well and try to remember if we had or have similar fears, especially if we are related to the children for whom we care.

If anxiety seems to be affecting the health of your child or adolescent, consider meeting with your child’s teachers and counselors for additional information. If warranted, speak with your pediatrician and seek a referral to a therapist, psychologist or child psychiatrist for further evaluation and possible treatment.

Common treatments of anxiety disorders involve relaxation with slow, deep breathing, cognitive behavior therapy to recognize distressing, anxiety-provoking thoughts and techniques to work through them, and medications proven to lessen the symptoms.

For anxiety disorders, the most common medications prescribed are the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). These medications have a history of “tried and true” safe and effective treatment of the common anxiety disorders noted above.

As highlighted earlier, it’s important to note that often one of the first steps in treating a young person’s anxiety disorder is making sure the caregiver’s own anxiety symptoms are recognized and treated as well.

In closing, we should remember that anxiety isn’t all bad. It motivates us to use caution, get started and get things done. However, when anxiety and fear take on a “life of their own” and take away from the quality and enjoyment of our children’s lives, academic performance, and socialization, it is important to take more significant actions to deal with our own “worries” about them.

About Dr. Williams

williamsDr. Williams is a Board Certified Child/Adolescent Psychiatrist and is a full-time faculty member at LSU Health New Orleans School of Medicine, Department of Psychiatry. Dr. Williams has practiced as a physician on the Children’s Hospital Behavioral Health Unit for the past eight years and has been the Medical Director of the unit for the past seven years.

 

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