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The Four Winds Blog

Understanding Anxiety

By Jennifer Powell-Lunder, Psy. D.

Current research indicates that today’s children and teenagers are suffering from anxiety at epidemic proportions, a concern recently highlighted by an article in the New York Times. Understanding the hypothesis regarding why this high prevalence rate has evolved is certainly important, but of more immediate priority is understanding how anxiety is affecting kids.

There are several different types of anxiety, but when any one of them reaches a certain threshold, clinical professionals categorize it as a disorder. The number one qualification is that the anxiety being experienced is so overwhelming it interferes with day-to-day living. Quite often this interference is subtle at first. A socially anxious teenager, for example, might avoid school functions such as sporting events or parties. On the more extreme end of the spectrum, the same teenager might refuse to attend school all together in order to circumvent interacting with their peers.

Anxiety is an internalizing disorder, and due to this, it can often be difficult to detect. By definition, those who have an internalizing disorder internalize their problem and keep it to themselves. Therefore, they tend to suffer in silence. This can be especially true for children and teenagers who avoid confronting their symptoms until they become debilitating. These kids work hard at hiding their distress and become so skilled in their deceptions the important people in their lives such as family members, teachers or coaches might have no idea they are suffering.

It is not unusual for outsiders to read anxiety symptoms incorrectly. Unfortunately, this can compound the stress the child or teenager is feeling. For example, a teenager who consistently turns down social invitations will be misperceived as standoffish. They end up making a pariah of themselves when their peers learn not to invite them at all. Parents aren’t immune to this kind of miscommunication either. Anxiety can result in irritability and anger, and where many parents might believe their child is acting willfully defiant or belligerent when avoiding certain responsibilities, in reality their kid is feeling overwhelmed by their request.

Another symptom of anxiety is embarrassment or shame. It’s not uncommon for kids or teenagers especially to feel like they are the only ones in the world experiencing this distress, and as a result, they can feel very alone. The best way to help kids and teenagers manage their anxiety is to provide support and guidance. A simple acknowledgment that what they are feeling is a valid struggle goes a long way. When kids learn that they don’t have to suffer in silence, they can begin to develop the coping skills they need to manage their anxiety.

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