Feeling anxious is completely normal. In fact, it’s a good thing. Regardless of your age, anxiety is the body’s way of keeping us alert and safe.
Although it may be difficult for children to understand, anxious feelings are supposed to come and go. It’s how we know to look both ways before we cross the street, it motivates us to practice before we play a sport and reminds us to study before taking a big test.
However, like adults, some children live in a constant state of anxiety. Many young people experience debilitating fear that severely impacts their ability to perform simple tasks like going to school or attending a birthday party.
With more young people than ever before reporting feelings of psychological distress, anxiety is not only negatively impacting child development, but disrupting and putting strain on the family unit as a whole. According to Dr. Kathryn Boger, PhD, ABPP we are currently in the middle of what has been referred to as a pediatric anxiety epidemic.
“We’re seeing increased rates of diagnosable anxiety in children, adolescents and the college-aged population,” Boger explains. “These are children and adolescents whose anxiety is so severe they have stopped doing what they love, the things that are meaningful to them and give their lives value.”
According to Boger, feelings of anxiety and panic cause many young people to stop socializing with family and friends, to give up their extracurriculars, and to develop avoidant behaviours to minimize feelings of stress.
As the program director of the McLean Anxiety Mastery Program (MAMP) at the McLean Hospital in Cambridge, Mass., Boger leads an outpatient program that specializes in treating children ages 7-19 with anxiety disorders such as social anxiety, panic disorder, agoraphobia and separation anxiety.
“A lot of the kids in our program will stop going to school because of anxiety, and if they’re in school, they’re often unable to access their education because they’re spending much of their time distracted by anxiety.” Boger explains. “These children are falling off the developmental curve, and many children and families are in crisis by the time they come to us.”
Despite reports that one in 10 Canadian youth develop an anxiety or mood disorder, 75 per cent of children affected do not access specialized treatment for mental health issues – and the reasons why are complicated.
While it’s common for young children and adolescents to experience tantrums or mood swings, many parents may be unaware that their child may actually be struggling with anxiety.
“Anxiety can manifest in different ways, including fight, flight or freeze,” Boger explains. “You may have a ‘fight’ kid who looks obstinate or irritable and is lashing out but inside, is riddled with anxiety and is feeling very misunderstood. Sometimes, there’s a ‘flight’ kid who is avoidant, and may appear to others as lazy or like they don’t care – when in reality, anxiety is the root of the issue.”
For those who do seek help, Boger says it can be difficult for parents to navigate the system, and find treatment for their child that is effective and supported by research.
“Many anxious children and adolescents end up in talk therapy or therapy that isn’t evidence based,” she said. “These kids sometimes end up feeling even more hopeless because they’ve been in therapy for two years and think, ‘I’m still not getting better – what’s wrong with me?’”
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), the cornerstone of treatment at MAMP, is a form of therapy that helps patients better manage anxiety by targeting their…
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