There was a time when stress and anxiety were considered to be disorders mostly faced by adults, while children remained relatively carefree and happy. Whether that can be stated as an absolute claim or not is a matter for debate. However, it is undeniable that children today face more pressures from an early age, from social media to cyberbullying to increasingly competitive college admissions processes.
Anxiety Rates in Children and Adolescents
Recent studies indicate that children and young adults experience stress and anxiety at increasingly younger ages. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 18.1 percent of the adult population in the United States suffers from some form of anxiety.
Anxiety disorders include everything from generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and specific phobias. Females are more likely to suffer from phobias than males, and the average age of onset for specific phobias is seven.1
Childhood anxiety cases have been steadily increasing since the 1950s. Jean M. Twenge, Ph.D., from Case Western Reserve University studied the mental health of children, looking at anxiety records from the 1950s to the 1980s and found that anxiety had increased significantly in children and college-aged young adults over those three decades.2
This raises the question of whether diagnosis for anxiety disorders has improved with time and is simply the cause of the increased rates, or whether anxiety rates are in fact on the rise. It’s entirely possible that the answer is somewhere in the middle of this dichotomy.
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Let’s take the example of autism rates in children. The number of documented cases of children with autism has increased, and for a while, it was thought that this was down to the alleged link between vaccines and autism. The Lancet has since retracted the study that first mentioned the link between vaccines and autism, admitting that the study was heavily flawed.3
Thus, diagnosis of autism is still increasing because there is more awareness about the condition and more parents are pursuing a diagnosis. In addition, doctors are more aware of the diagnostic criteria, and more children who are “on the spectrum” are diagnosed.
This case shows that it’s likely that as standards of mental healthcare improve and awareness increases, it is becoming easier for younger children to be diagnosed with anxiety. Where teachers and even parents may have been unaware of the worries of their children a decade or two ago, today that is no longer the case. Children’s mental health services have improved dramatically since the 1950s and 1960s, and that means that there are more children being diagnosed and treated for mental health issues.4
When Anxiety Becomes a Cause for Concern
Some level of worry, and some “anxious feelings” are perfectly normal for children and for adults. When a person of any age is taken out of their usual routine, they may feel uneasy. Anxiety, in the clinical sense, is the issue that surfaces when stress begins to interferes with several aspects of day to day life.
Signs of Anxiety in Children and Adolescents
Children who are suffering from anxiety may exhibit many behaviors, including difficulty concentrating, night terrors, loss of appetite, anger, and irritability, negative thoughts, constant fidgeting, clingy behavior, and frequent crying.
Young children often suffer from separation anxiety, while teenagers are more likely to experience social anxiety.5
Common Causes of Anxiety in Children and Adolescents
The growing issue of anxiety in children and teenagers is still something that researchers are investigating. It’s not clear what causes some young people to be more likely to experience anxiety than others, however, a few causes have been identified.
- Gender: Males appear to be less susceptible to anxiety than females.
- Family history: Children that grow up in families where one or both parents have anxiety are more likely to develop anxiety themselves. It is unclear whether this is a genetic predisposition, or whether it has to do with the way the child is raised.
- Experiences: Children that experience adversity may struggle with the difficult emotions created by those experiences.
Combatting Stress and Anxiety in Young People
What can do, as parents, mentors, or peers do to support young people who are struggling with stress and anxiety? That’s a question that even the experts are still struggling with. One of the challenges of going through puberty and entering adulthood is figuring out where social boundaries lie and learning to stand on your own two feet.
Younger children need to feel supported and safe. Teenagers need to know that support is there when they need it, but they also need to feel that they have the freedom to push boundaries and to make their own mistakes.
As a parent, finding the balance between allowing a child to start making their own decisions and enjoy their own freedoms is one of the biggest challenges of the teenage years. As a teacher, mentor, support worker or even caring friend, walking the line between offering guidance and being overbearing is difficult.
However, there are a few places where progress can begin.
First, many teenagers today find themselves overscheduled. They are ferried from school to after-school clubs, to sports groups, and tutoring. Then they have busy social lives, which are competitive in their own right. If they use social media, then it’s easy to experience “fear of missing out” as they see the updates from their peers.
Teens need to feel like it’s acceptable to relax. This is particularly true for teens whose parents are perhaps slight workaholics. Learning work-life balance at an early age can be quite beneficial moving forward.
Set a good example and show the young people in your life that it’s important to work hard and that it’s also important to know when to take a break. Schedule some time for yourself. Take a night off to watch a great movie, soak in the bath with some essential oils, or go get a massage at a spa. Find a hobby that you love doing for fun, and then go do it at least once a week. Turn your phone off when you’re at the dinner table and make sure to make time for the family. These behaviors will get picked up on, and even if the young people in your life don’t talk as if they have noticed it, there is a greater chance they will mirror it.
Additionally, getting outdoors is always beneficial for relaxation.
It’s hard to say for sure how much of the increase in diagnosed stress in children and young adults is due to increased awareness and improved diagnostic criteria, how much is due reformed social perceptions of mental health, and how much is actually a clear increase in the number of people who are stressed or anxious. It’s likely that all three factors have an impact.
Though more studies are needed for better understanding of what can be done moving forward, improvements and stress-relieving practices on an individual or family level are a great start.