It’s More than Saying “Worry Less” – Understanding Anxiety in Children & Teens

December 28, 2011

It’s More than Saying “Worry Less” – Understanding Anxiety in Children & Teens

If you all are like me, minor anxiety probably crops up all the time. You worry about your own children, your students and yourself, all of which can inhibit progress and (more often in my case) sleep. However present anxiety is in our daily lives, severe cases are a dangerous mental health issue and one that is cropping up more and more in school settings. Good Anxiety/Bad Anxiety From an evolutionary perspective, anxiety is actually a good trait. In hunter/gatherer times, the humans who survived were the ones with the foresight to worry about danger – be it a predator or simply a dangerous route to walk. In that way, minor anxiety over making the right decisions or making a big move is not only normal, but good. It is when this worry inhibits someone from performing daily tasks and making those decisions for a sustained period of time (generally, 6 months or more) that minor anxiety becomes anxiety disorder [caption id="attachment_814" align="alignleft" width="216" caption="Photo courtesy of Tina Phillips"][/caption] . Looking at the Statistics According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 18% of the adult population suffers from some type of anxiety disorder. However 1 in every 4 teens will experience these same symptoms of anxiety in their adolescent years (13-18) and 5% of them will experience symptoms of anxiety so much that they will be classified as a severe disorder. Females are 50% more likely to suffer from anxiety, but that does not mean that males are immune. Fully 20% of teenage males will experience anxiety at some point. Therefore, recognizing the symptoms and causes of anxiety disorder are essential to help students who suffer with this issue succeed both socially and academically. Types of Anxiety Disorders Typically, the term “anxiety disorder” is uses as a catchall for many different subclasses of mental illnesses. The most common types of anxiety disorders include:
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
  • Social Anxiety Disorder (Social Phobia)
  • Panic Disorder
  • General Anxiety Disorder
Since anxiety generally is the most common mental health issue in the United States as a whole, it is likely that we will all come into contact with students who hail from each of these groups throughout our teaching careers. Understanding these distinctions is also important because these subgroups carry a lot of weight in terms of treatment. Simple Accommodations for Anxious Children Depending on the type of anxiety disorder a particular student suffers from, there are many simple and cost-free accommodations that you can make in your classroom to help ease the child’s symptoms.
  • Assigned Seating- Because socially anxious children and teens will often fear getting into trouble, making sure that they are seated in a “safe” area of the classroom (nearest you and away from disruptive children) will ease many of their fears.
  • Timed Assignments & Homework- Students who suffer from OCD will often take an inordinate amount of time to complete simple tasks and homework due to their need for rechecking, redoing and perfection. Consider instituting a time limit or “suggested completion time” for these assignments. This will give the OCD student a goal and benefit the whole class as well since the timing is an important indication of mastery.
  • Cool Down Pass- Children who suffer from anxiety can often get overwhelmed and may need time to cool down in order to prevent an anxiety attack. Since these children rarely exhibit anti-social and disruptive behaviors due to their fears of punishment, giving them a “cool down” pass that they place on their desk or yours as a means to take this time to collect themselves can help ease their sense of comfort
  • Safe Person- Many times when children with anxiety are overwhelmed by fear, they often can only stop their worry once they are in a “safe” environment. Help your anxious student to find another adult in the school (a school counselor, nurse, or administrator) to go to at times of severe symptoms. As little as 5-10 minutes in a “safe” place can recharge the child and help him to return to the classroom.
Helping the Student with Anxiety For children and teens, the treatment for anxiety is often more difficult than for adults who generally have far more control over their lives and daily events. As educators, understanding the prevalence and role that anxiety plays in the life of young children and teens can help us to aid them in recovery both in school and beyond.



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