You may not think your child has anxiety, but new guidelines suggest it doesn’t hurt to get a professional’s opinion.
Children should get screened regardless of whether they have a diagnosed anxiety disorder, according to a new recommendation issued by a national task force that oversees mental health.
The recommendation shines light on the severity of child and teenage anxiety in the U.S. For instance, researchers estimate that:
- Approximately 8% of children and teenagers have an anxiety disorder.
- Untreated anxiety disorders get worse. Anxiety disorders in youth are associated with a greater likelihood of developing anxiety disorders or depression in adulthood.
Here are five things parents should know about the new recommendation.
#1. Take this recommendation seriously
Teenage mental health has deteriorated rapidly over the past decade, likely due to social media and excessive screen time. The Covid-19 pandemic has compounded the problem.
One recent study found that teenagers’ moment-to-moment emotional state was directly linked to the number of likes they received on a social media post. Evidence suggests that teenage girls are disproportionately affected.
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Researchers agree that early detection is one of the best ways to combat the growing crisis. In many cases, a few minor lifestyle changes can make a big difference in getting your child’s anxiety under control before it turns into a larger issue.
#2. Know what treatment for anxiety looks like
The authors examined 29 existing studies on anxiety treatment in children and adolescents. They found:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy, a form of talk therapy that helps people identify and change destructive or disturbing thought patterns, can improve anxiety in terms of treatment response, disease remission, and loss of diagnosis.
- Pharmacotherapy, or the use of medicines such as sertraline and fluoxetine, can calm the symptoms of anxiety.
As with many preventative health procedures, researchers cite few downsides to screening. They conclude that “screening for anxiety in children and adolescents aged 8 to 18 years has a moderate net benefit in improving outcomes such as treatment response and disease remission.”
#3. Familiarize yourself with the screening process
The two most common measures used to diagnose anxiety in children and teenagers are:
- Screen for Child Anxiety Related Disorders (SCARED) — a 41-item questionnaire, completed independently by both the child and the parent, with agree-disagree statements such as, “When I feel frightened, it is hard for me to breathe”; “I am nervous”; “When I get frightened, I feel like I am going crazy”; and “I worry about things that have already happened.”
- Social Phobia and Anxiety Inventory for Children — a 26-item scale that measures a child’s social anxiety as it relates to assertiveness, general conversation, public performance, physical and cognitive symptoms, and avoidance of social situations.
The researchers point out that anxiety screening is not sufficient by itself. “If the screening test is positive for anxiety,” the authors write, “a confirmatory diagnostic assessment and follow-up is required.”
#4. Follow up with your primary care physician
A recent survey of primary care physicians found that, while 76% reported believing in the importance of talking to adolescent patients about their mental health, only 46% said that they always asked their patients about their mental health. It is important that parents follow up with their primary care physicians to make sure their child receives the screening.
#5. Keep an eye out for emerging research
The authors are requesting future studies that look at:
- The benefits, harms and feasibility of screening in primary care settings.
- The accuracy of screening tools in children and adolescents and the effectiveness of anxiety treatment in younger children.
- How care might be adapted to different demographic groups (e.g., sex, race and ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender identity).
For now, it’s important that parents stay in tune with their child’s mental health needs, follow through on recommended screenings and seek out professional support when it is needed.