Anxiety is a normal part of life, for both kids and adults. It would be difficult to find a child who, at some point, didn’t worry about monsters in the closet, or feel apprehensive on the first day of school. In most cases, these fears are eased with reassurance, love and comfort from an adult in their lives.
But for some children and teens, anxiety is a constant companion. It is part of their everyday lives, and it can seriously impair their functioning. It can even lead to debilitating panic attacks, which are characterized by symptoms such as shortness of breath, shaking, dizziness, heart racing and intense fear.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly a third of adolescents have an anxiety disorder, with about 8% suffering from severe impairment that leads to poor performance in school or missing school altogether; avoiding social situations; isolating; and/or using alcohol or drugs to mask the pain. They often feel alone and ashamed, and their anxiety can contribute to other conditions such as depression and eating disorders.
Although the cause of anxiety and panic attacks is varied, it can include a trauma, a divorce or death in the family or a physical illness. Plus, some people may be biologically predisposed to anxiety and panic attacks.
How do you know if your child’s anxieties are just part of growing up or if they are more serious in nature?
“Anxiety is a normal response to uncertainty, such as a test, a school report or project, conflicts between friends or arguments with family members,” says Elissa Smilowitz, LCSW and Coordinator of Triage and Emergency Services at North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center. “However, when the anxiety or thoughts causing anxiety come from the child’s internal thought processes, parents may need to bring the child into therapy to address these issues.”
Here are some suggestions on how to help your child or teen who experiences anxiety and panic attacks:
- Encourage your child to speak openly about his or her feelings. They need to know that they are not at fault when they experience symptoms of anxiety or panic.
- Assure them that, although they may feel they are crazy or are going to die, they are not in any danger.
- If your child associates a certain place (such as school) with a panic attack, they may start avoiding that situation. Gentle, gradual exposure is essential, since continued avoidance only strengthens the pattern.
- News and social media can impact children much more than adults, causing them to feel unsafe in their environment, so it’s wise to monitor what your children are watching on TV and on social media.
- Make sure your child eats healthy meals, gets enough sleep and exercises. Being physically healthy can lessen the effects of anxiety and panic.
- Get an evaluation from a medical professional to rule out any physical ailments that may contribute to anxiety.
- Contact a mental health agency or professional; tell your child that seeing a therapist is a perfectly normal thing to do, and that many kids who experience anxiety are helped through therapy.
The good news is that panic and anxiety disorders are very responsive to treatment. If your child or teen needs help, please contact North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center at (516) 626-1971.