Everybody experiences anxiety. But for some people, including kids, anxiety can take over their life.
Researchers at Duke Medicine's Program in Child Affective and Anxiety Disorders provide clinical care for kids and adolescents suffering from a range of anxiety and affective disorders. They also work as researchers to add to what is known about the causes, diagnosis and treatment of affective and anxiety disorders in young people.
Dr. Jeffrey Sapyta, a clinical psychologist and an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke University Medical Center, will lead a presentation May 20 called "Kids Get Anxious Too - Helping the Anxious Child" at Duke Medicine's Teer House. He'll discuss current issues and effective approaches for children struggling with anxiety, school avoidance, and test anxiety, among other issues.
Click here for all the details, including how to register for the program.
Sapyta took some time to answer a few questions about children and anxiety. One piece of our conversation that really stuck in my mind was that kids with anxiety that might need treatment often have fears that are not age appropriate. A three-year-old being afraid of a monster in the closet isn't something to worry about because that's something you'd expect from a preschooler. But it might be worth checking on if a nine-year-old is scared of the same thing.
Go Ask Mom: We all get anxious at some point. How do you know when it's time to get help for your child's anxiety?
Sapyta: It's true: we all get anxious. And in many ways a reasonable level of anxiety helps us stay safe and can even help us succeed. But bouts of anxiety may become considered possibly an anxiety disorder when an area of concern becomes a pattern (at least four weeks) and the fears start interfering with life.
GAM: What kind of anxiety are you seeing in kids?
Sapyta: Kids who see mental health professionals for anxiety typically are children with common fears, but they are typically exaggerated or otherwise not age appropriate. For example, separation anxiety is one of the most common anxiety disorders in children. It involves having exaggerated worries about something bad happening to loved ones, which can lead to refusing to be alone, go to school, or sleep alone. Other common issues can involve excessive specific fears involving a specific object/situation like excessive fears of dogs, extreme weather, injections, or social situations. Our treatment team also has a good deal of experience treating child obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), which involves thoughts and/or feelings kids get "stuck" thinking about and lead to repetitive behaviors (hand washing, excessive reassurance seeking, etc.)
GAM: Are we seeing more anxiety in kids or are we just addressing it differently?
Sapyta: I am not aware of research suggesting kids are more anxious today than in the past. But certainly the evolution of the media and the internet has certainly made learning and discussing issues like child mental health disorders less taboo. Our best estimates, according to the Surgeon General, is that in any given year 16 percent of children are struggling with anxiety enough to qualify for an anxiety disorder diagnosis. In order to receive a diagnosis, typically the anxiety has to be profound, ongoing (more than four weeks in duration), not typical for their age, and interfering with normal development (peer relations, school performance, slowing/changing the family routine).
GAM: How can they help make things better?
Sapyta: I think the first thing a parent can do is to get educated about typical types of child anxiety, particularly if there is a history of anxiety or depression in their extended family. They can also be proactive with their family doctor about discussing concerns themselves or others have (e.g., teachers, grandparents) about a child's anxiety. Remember, most child anxiety disorders stem from very common fears kids have. So your family doctor can help you decide how much of what you see is within the normal range for their age versus what should be followed up with some help with a specialist. The good news is that there are effective treatments for anxiety in children and adolescents, including some relatively short-term talking therapies such as cognitive-behavioral therapy.
For more information about the work that the Program in Child Affective and Anxiety Disorders does, click here.