As a child psychologist, I see a growing number of children with anxiety — it’s disheartening. These kiddos are worriers, sleep poorly and have frequent headaches and stomachaches. They worry about their parents, their future, their grades and their friends. Many of them have a permanent pit in their stomach.
According to the National Institute of Health, between 2007 and 2012, there was a 20% increase in anxiety disorders among children. They estimate that 30% of teenagers suffer from too much anxiety. This is alarming. What’s causing this epidemic of fear and worry?
Unfortunately, there are no simple answers. Biological, psychological and social factors are difficult to isolate. There is a high degree of heritability of anxiety disorders that are characterized by worry — known as generalized anxiety disorder. Children with a parent with anxiety are 2.1 to 2.6 times more likely to develop an anxiety disorder than a child without an anxious parent. Twin studies and large-scale analyses indicate that 31.6% of those diagnosed with anxiety disorders have a genetic component. But what about the other 70%?
Some children, even at an early age, are more high strung than others. Their little nervous systems are sensitive, reactive to internal and external stimuli. The smoke detectors in their brain, the amygdala, regularly sends messages to their nervous system to turn on the flight or fight switch — even when there’s no threat to avoid.
In humans, even negative thoughts can light this fire. It causes kids (and adults) a lot of suffering.
I had a very anxious dad, and my brother and I carried this legacy into adult life. We probably have the genes for this tendency. I decided, early on, that medication wasn’t the right choice for me, although it can be very helpful for others.
I started jogging in graduate school, which helped a great deal. Exercise is an effective tension reducer. I made relaxation practices — meditation, breathing exercises and relaxation part of my everyday life. I saw a therapist to help me work on coping with some of my adverse childhood experiences, which can throw gasoline on this genetic fire.
These approaches do work — but it takes time to develop knowledge, skill and the muscle memory of calm. Over the years, I’ve learned how to take care my nervous system.
I do think that our anxiety epidemic is a sign of the times. The future seems less certain, with more bullets to dodge —including real ones. The recession in 2008 changed the employment landscape and surely had a ripple effect on families. The pace of life and change is more like a 100-yard dash than a steady jog.
Cellphones ping with texts every few minutes — from work, friends and family. Social media feeds show pictures of happy friends and family, so what’s wrong with me if I’m having a bad day?
So what can parents do?
Help worried kids develop relaxation skills. Mind-body practices that calm our fear-driven brains do work, including yoga, mindfulness and martial arts. Yoga, in particular, is widely available. Take a class with your youngster; make it a family activity. These physical postures calm our overstimulated nervous systems. They teach us to recognize tension and relaxation, and to know the difference. Make taking long, slow breaths a family ritual before starting homework. Make family meals a phone free time — to enjoy each other’s company, talk and relax. Keep kids moving; exercise is a very important stress reducer. Don’t let them sit in from of their screens for too long.
Be the shoemaker with shoes. Which means: You are your children’s role model. Show them how to live a more comfortable life by living in greater balance. Make sure that you are the person you want them to be. They will imitate you — for better or for worse.
Make it for better.