Anxiety disorders are the most-diagnosed mental health condition in children. Nearly 32% of youth struggle or have struggled with a diagnosable anxiety disorder. But anxiety is also an emotion that most people feel throughout our lives.
Even if you don’t have an anxiety disorder, you’ve probably felt more anxious than usual over the past year. The same is true for children.
Children (and adults) can express anxiety in a variety of ways. Some signs of anxiety in children include trouble concentrating and focusing, constant worrying, panicking, avoiding people, places or things, restlessness, grumpiness, changes in eating habits, and toilet training regression.
Over the last year, adults and children alike have had a lot more to worry about. Last May in this column, I wrote about how children were likely to experience more adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) during the COVID-19 pandemic.
ACEs are childhood stressors that have been shown to influence health in the short and long term. They include food insecurity, loss of a parent, and exposure to abuse, among others. And while experiencing change in general isn’t an ACE, going through major life changes can be anxiety inducing for many people.
Now, a year later, experts are asking how the reopening of public spaces will affect child mental health. May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and as we experience changing health orders, it is important to consider that these changes could be difficult for children and families.
Children who are too young to be vaccinated may be worried about getting COVID-19 even as everything starts looking more “normal.” Children may have experienced the loss of a parent, grandparent or other loved one, and they may experience new waves of grief or anxiety about losing another person close to them.
And after a year of social distancing, altered school schedules and fewer social activities, children may experience changes in their friendships and friend groups. They may feel anxious about being in large groups or seeing peers they haven’t seen in more than a year. Some children may even feel some separation anxiety as their parent(s), who have been working from home, return to the office.
In the face of all this, how can we best help children and their families better manage anxiety?
Research has provided us with a number of evidence-based tools to combat anxiety. Some of the non-medication tools are especially helpful in helping children manage their anxiety before it affects their functioning. These include regular exercise, healthy diet, getting enough sleep, meditation and mindfulness, and supportive relationships with family and friends.
Strong personal relationships can help enable youth to talk about their worries aAdvanced Options nd also offer opportunities to give and receive support at difficult times.
Keeping the lines of communication open and allowing children to express their worries is essential to helping them cope with change. And when the anxiety becomes disruptive and difficult to manage, primary care providers and behavioral health experts can help children and families get the support they need.
Abbie Roth is managing editor of Pediatrics Nationwide and Science Communication at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.