Now for a problem we all face: Anxiety. It’s always been fact of life, but the increasing anxiety of our times can feel like it’s grinding us all down. There’s a widespread sense that we’re living in an age of anxiety, and research has shown it to be true. Worse, our kids may be suffering most of all.
Dr. Jonathan Dalton, Founder of the Center for Anxiety and Behavioral Change, came to The StudyPro to give a 2-hour workshop on, “Reducing the Impact of Anxiety in Our Children.” Data shows that anxiety disorders occur early, with a median onset age of 11, and affect 31.9% of kids aged 13-18. For girls, the number is even higher at 38%.
According to Dr. Dalton, parents tend to underestimate their kids’ anxiety by about half. Highly effective forms of treatment exist, but sadly, only 18% of teens will receive the treatment they need.
Anxiety is an essential part of the natural and healthy function of the brain. It’s related to the “fight-or-flight” response that allows us to prioritize personal safety above all else. This response is activated at the suggestion of danger, and overrides all other concerns. When a threat appears, the fight-or-flight response helps us survive. Clearly a beneficial process!
But this immediate response to a perceived threat occurs whether the threat is real or not, and this is where the problem starts to arise. Think of watching a scary movie late at night. Your racing heart and sweating palms are responses to a nonexistent threat. You know the bad guy isn’t going to step off the screen and come after you, but the terror you feel is no less real.
This is how anxiety can wreak havoc in the daily lives of our children (and ourselves). Whenever we feel sick, hurt or scared, our brains flag the scenario for future avoidance. This process can teach children not to touch a hot stove. It can make us avoid a once-favorite food from which we got food poisoning. And it can make our kids unwilling to approach a new classmate, ride a bike after falling, tackle challenging math problems, or take other risks that will lead to growth and development. When anxiety starts to interfere with life and growth, it has become a problem.
Avoidance, the behavioral component of anxiety, is its worst outcome, and also the key to fighting it. To combat anxiety, Dr. Dalton stresses the need to treat avoidance. Teens can be treated with exposure therapy, encouraging them to gradually embrace what scares them. This doesn’t mean shoving your swim-shy kid into the deep end of the pool, but inviting him to sit on the top step until his fear passes, then, once mastered, moving down a step. The goal, as Dr. Dalton put it, is stand with one foot in the comfort zone and one foot out, and to stay there until the comfort zone starts to expand.
How do you know if your kid is struggling with anxiety? Kids are great at faking moods, so it can be hard to tell. Dr. Dalton suggests looking for a few telltale signs: perfectionism, fatigue from the emotional demands, irritability, and increased absenteeism indicating avoidance. Some kids are at a greater risk of anxiety disorders to begin with: girls, introverts, smart and sensitive kids, and kids who show signs of behavioral inhibition or social avoidance.
Some parents may wonder if anxiety is such a bad thing after all. Many of us motivate ourselves through fear of failure, so why shouldn’t our kids do the same? But the fact is that excessive anxiety undermines success, both present and future. Concentration at school, for example, becomes harder because the limited capacity of a teen’s working memory is taken up with intrusive, anxious thoughts. And all that mental turmoil leads to exhaustion, possible burnout, and (more) avoidance.
The most important lesson about anxiety, according to Dr. Dalton, is that thoughts are not evidence and fears are not facts. Your teenager’s terror over her upcoming math test is not evidence that she has any reason to fear it, or that the math test itself is scary. The overvaluation of thoughts, imbuing them with meaning beyond that they simply exist, is the essence of anxiety disorders.
How can we help our kids who struggle with anxiety? Don’t allow them to give in to avoidance. Instead, arm them with coping mechanisms! Help your kids to understand that scary thoughts can never hurt them, and that they are stronger than their fears. The good news is that anxiety is treatable, and, for kids who need it, professional help is available! Dr. Dalton’s practice and others use CBT and exposure therapy to treat anxiety disorders and experience very high success rates.