Parent Pathways

Gala: Dealing with kids’ anxieties

July 8, 2013 

When I was 10, the same age my son is now, I had a serious migraine headache that was completely disorienting. I had trouble speaking. I knew what I wanted to say, but my mouth wouldn’t form the words.

The doctors thought I might have had an epileptic seizure, but medical tests came back normal.

The diagnosis was a complex migraine. Doctors told my parents that anxiety or stress could have triggered it. My mom mention that to some neighbors, and I remember one said, “Stress! What kid has stress?”

Actually, kids have a lot of stress – not only with homework and parental expectations but also the dreaded concerns: Do I fit in? Am I normal? Will they like me?

Luckily, I’ve never had another migraine, but I still have anxiety, the most common mental illness in the United States. Some 40 million adults in America suffer from it each year.

While some of the stigma surrounding anxiety and depression in adults has faded, it’s still there when it comes to treating kids.

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America reports one in eight kids suffers from an anxiety disorder. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates one in five kids will have a seriously debilitating mental disorder in any given year.

“The rule of thumb is that 70 percent of my clients who walk in the door have some form of anxiety disorder, whether that’s the primary or secondary condition,” said Dr. Monica Summers, a licensed child psychologist in Cary.

So why has the stigma lessened with adults but remained in place for kids? Summers said a lot of parents, and society in general, figure if your kid sees a child psychologist, then surely you did something wrong. You’re a bad parent.

It’s simply not true.

“Parents do not cause anxiety in their children,” Summers said. “Most of what psychologists diagnose has a medical or genetic component. It’s not bad or neglectful parenting. It can run in families just like allergies or hair color or height or weight.”

In fact, The Child Mind Institute says although anxiety and depression can be triggered by life events in some cases, “the vast majority of depressed kids haven’t suffered a trauma and do not come from abusive backgrounds.”

Giving children medication is controversial, but in many cases it’s worth asking about.

Then again, how do you know if your child really needs outside help and is not just experiencing typical age-appropriate fears?

“It’s a tricky line, and that’s where a professional can help parents,” Summers said.

Ask yourself a few questions: Is this taking over our family? How much time are we spending on all of this? How many things have you tried that haven’t helped?

“That’s when you know you’re at a good place to have an outside opinion,” Summers said.

The biggest no-no in dealing with anxiety: dismissing it.

“The first line of defense is empathy, empathy, empathy,” Summers said. “Consider saying, ‘I know you’re scared. I know it’s dark. I know you hate going to bed thinking there’s a monster under there.’ One of the dynamics that I see pop up is that our instinct as a grown-up is to say, ‘You’re not afraid. Go to bed. You should have been in bed 15 minutes ago.’

“Parents always want to sweep it under the rug, but it’s not going to elicit the response the children are looking for,” she continued. “With empathy, kids don’t have to convince you they’re scared. They don’t have to act out or make a bigger spectacle of how they’re feeling. They know you get it. It validates their concern.”

There are a few other things to consider when dealing with anxiety at home, including ensuring your child has an adequate bedtime and good food choices. Is he or she getting exercise and time with other kids? What about hugs and affection?

Also, Summers said, consider the “why.” If the anxiety is only an issue at bedtime, for example, could the child need a little more one-on-one time before bed? If so, do your best to work it into the routine, striking a deal that once the lights are out, everyone’s done.

If hysterics or fears persist after trying at-home strategies, don’t be shy about seeking the help of a licensed counselor.

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