How to Help a Child With an Anxiety Disorder

Dr. Merikangas was a co-investigator on a national study of mental disorders in adolescents, which has shown both that anxiety disorders were the most common mental health problems in adolescents in the United States, and also the problems that showed up earliest in those children’s lives — the mean age of onset for anxiety disorders was 6. But many adolescents had never received treatment. That makes it essential to get the word out, Dr. Merikangas said, that anxiety is “one of the most treatable symptoms and syndromes, we can really change their lives with minimal intervention.”

“All these disorders are remarkably treatable,” Dr. Koplewicz said. There are highly effective behavioral and psychosocial therapies, including cognitive behavioral therapies, to help children cope with the demands of daily life. For children who don’t respond to psychosocial therapies, he said, medications can be added.

But perhaps because anxiety is a normal response, parents often believe that even severe and disabling anxiety symptoms are just a phase, and on average, there is a two-year lag between the time children develop anxiety and the time they get help. “It’s bad for these children’s brains,” he said. “Having your brain’s thermostat miss-set is not good for your brain.”

“Anxiety can manifest itself along a continuum,” said Rachel Busman, the senior director of the anxiety disorders center at the Child Mind Institute. The report shows that there is some overlap with physical illnesses, such as chronic headaches or stomach aches, often coordinated with school. “That could be a kid’s way of saying, ‘I’m anxious,’” she said.

And when a child who is having a lot of difficulty with separation gets into the classroom, Dr. Busman said, that child may start throwing things, or running and hiding, and that “bad behavior” may represent the fight or flight response of anxiety. “We’ve also seen kids who have intense social anxiety and their way of managing it is to be class clown,” she said.

Treating children with anxiety always means working with their parents. Jerry Bubrick, senior clinical psychologist at the anxiety disorders center of the Child Mind Institute, said that when children are little, it’s normal for parents to operate in “fix-it mode,” blocking the staircase so a toddler doesn’t tumble down, averting problems before they happen.

As children get older, parents normally pull back, helping children find solutions of their own. “But anxious parents of anxious children remain in fix-it mode,” he said, helping their children avoid the situations that make them anxious. Therapy involves exposing children to those situations and helping them develop strategies to manage them; with treatment, Dr. Bubrick said, parents can “let the child experience the anxiety and learn to tolerate and overcome it on their own.”

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