The New York Times sheds light on the real and often over looked issue of anxiety disorder, which haunts children nationwide. According to a report on anxiety in children and adolescents written by Child Mind Institute in New York,
Anxiety disorders, the most common mental health problems in children and adolescents, often go untreated while children suffer, even though there are effective treatments available.
While Perri Klass, M.D., of The New York Times includes that,
Anxiety may be missed because it doesn’t necessarily declare itself with attention-getting disruptive behaviors; in fact, symptoms may keep some children quiet and inhibited, though in other children, alternatively, anxiety may be misunderstood as oppositional behavior.
Because there are no clear warning signs, most children are left to fight this problem alone, in the same manner that past soldiers had to cope with PTSD before is was identified as a mental disorder.
This fight becomes more formidable to the child when parents see this serious problem as just their child being shy or reserved, and a phase in their life that they will outgrow as they learn more about their world. This belief couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, the anxiety that some children face may only evolve into something more damaging to the growth and development of the child.
Speaking from experience, I , now an adult, dealt with severe social anxiety as a child. It wasn’t with me from birth, considering the stories I’ve heard of my 3 and 4 year old self being quite the socialite in training. However, once I’ve gotten exposure to more of my peer group after starting school, and realizing that the things that family and friends I grew up around accepted as a part of me and cherished, wasn’t always appreciated by my classmates. And teachers.
A very probable combination of regular negative reinforcements doled out by people who didn’t understand me, made it more and more difficult to shine around others for fear of more negative attention. My willingness to be social and warm, was replace with this feeling of not wanting to be in the way. To not be heard, and to be left alone. That’s an incredibly alienating feeling for a 7 year old to go through.
Unfortunately, these changes in my behavior weren’t noticed as red flags by my parents.
As mentioned by Kathleen Merikangas, senior investigator and chief of the Genetic Epidemiology Research Branch at the National Institute of Mental Health,
“anxiety is one of the most under-recognized or under-treated conditions of childhood and adolescence”
“they may seem to be functioning well; many don’t have the kinds of developmental problems or attention issues that draw attention in school, though they may be suffering.”
As I became more anxious around other kids including the family that I grew so close to, my mother concluded that I was becoming more reserved. She couldn’t see that I was losing my real identity and my true self in this fight against this anxiety, which seemed to get slightly stronger by the day. As I grew older, I wasn’t exactly the happy kid my dad remembered me as when I interacted with other kids, but it wasn’t enough to sound his alarm. In his defense, some how, my dad seemed to know the right kids to introduce me to, so the hyper reserved side of me wasn’t as apparent to him. As well as the fact that I only stayed with him on the weekends and during summer breaks. While my parents and other adults watched me grow into this quiet, socially awkward kid, they couldn’t fathom that my invisible fight with anxiety was lost and a new problem was emerging from it.
My grades started slipping.
In the aforementioned New York Times article, Dr. Merikangas breaks down how anxiety can effect a child’s ability to excel in the classroom.
Consider the child whose anxiety about speaking in public gets in the way of participating in class. The child may be silent out of a fear of being laughed at or otherwise rejected, but to the teacher, it may look like the child is just not interested.
Some of my days in class were spent praying that my teachers wouldn’t call on me to answer questions or to read allowed. When there were things I didn’t understand, I was deathly afraid to ask for help. I just kept quiet and out of the way, which was my daily goal. The questions I were too afraid to ask plagued me both in that moment and later as I moved onto higher grades. To my mother, I just wasn’t trying hard enough. She didn’t know that I regularly missed huge chunks of daily lessons because of one small thing in the lesson that I didn’t understand. And that a single question would have made everything else make sense, had I just asked.
Dr. Merikangas notes that anxiety is closely tied to depression. As a child dealing with anxiety, depression and feelings of inadequacy were very apparent and determined how I continued to grow and develop. I never understood where I fit in and if I mattered at all. I witnessed my peers carry themselves with pride from a job well done and expressed it freely. I couldn’t imagine having that feeling for myself. My voice was stifled. I cared less about my grades and found myself gravitating towards the wrong crowd looking for acceptance. I became a troubled youth. I eventually became a (former) high school dropout.
My cautionary tale does take a positive turn after high school, but every child’s story doesn’t develop or end the same way. Sadly, with subsequent depression, some children’s stories end tragically.
Anxiety is a very powerful disorder that can derail children from their true and full potential. It’s up to parents to identify the anxiety their child may be facing instead of dismissing it as their child being shy or reserved and get help. Anxiety is a treatable disorder, and it comes in multiple forms. Whether it’s social, generalized, or separation anxiety, your child will display warning signs.
- Difficulty sleeping through the night or insisting on sleeping with parents
- Always worrying about what can go wrong
- Concerns or fears that hinder normal day to day activities
- Avoidance of people, specific situations, or activities
- Constant distress despite a parent’s reassurances
- Physical symptoms, such as headaches or stomach pain, that don’t stem from other medical conditions.
If you notice these signs are occurring regularly, a mental health screening may be the answer.