Anxiety: When Is It An Issue?

nailbitingAnxiety is a normal emotion experienced by everyone at one time or another.  A student may become anxious about the start of theschool year, an upcoming test, or fitting in with classmates.  Children may also become anxious when they learn about current events, including hurricanes and earthquakes, violence in school, illness and death.  No matter how much parents wish they could shield their children from such news, it is virtually impossible to do so.  They may see it in a newspaper lying on the kitchen counter, overhear it an adult conversation, or learn about it from a classmate on the bus or the playground.

Anxiety from these types of situational stressors are healthy reactions to new or uncomfortable situations and provide children with the opportunity to develop anxiety management skills that they will rely on throughout their lives.  In most cases, anxiety is an appropriate and proportional response.  Some children may talk about their worries and fears to parents, babysitters, or friends.  Others may process it internally and move on.

However, for many children anxiety can begin to dominate their lives.  Their levels of anxiety may become disproportionate to the event and interfere with day-to-day life.  Anxiety, in this context, occurs when (1) a student experiences excessive and uncontrollable worry about future and past events, (2) excessive concern about performing competently, and/or (3) significant self-consciousness (Peter Cowden, Niagra University).  These students are consumed by worry and fear.

The Anxiety Disorders Association of America reports that one in eight children suffers from anxiety disorders. Anxious students are often unable to think efficiently and can often present similarly to those with learning disabilities, impacting their ability to learn and retain information. Students with anxiety issues can overreact, become more rigid, more impulsive, or more intense. They may demonstrate avoidant behavior (frequent trips to the school nurse or the bathroom). Anxiety often negatively impacts students’ academic performance, social interactions, behavior and self esteem.

What makes anxiety even more problematic is the difficulty identifying it and distinguishing it from the many other issues it can resemble. Some anxious children may be very quiet, compliant and eager to please. Others may have difficulty focusing and act out in frustration and fear. Still others may become quiet and withdrawn. Many anxious children are not forthcoming with their fears and worries, causing even more anxiety as they suffer in silence. Anxiety disorders include Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Anorexia, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Panic Disorder and Social Anxiety Disorder.

Whatever the source, recognizing anxiety is critical. Many children with anxiety issues and disorders experience higher rates of school absences, academic difficulties and inability to concentrate, leading to a drop in grades and poor school performance. Anxiety can also result in impaired social relationships, isolation, poor self-esteem and low self-confidence.

How might anxiety manifest itself?

*Dropping grades
*Inability to focus, can’t attend to the teacher, appears preoccupied
*Constantly seeking teacher approval and avoiding any situation where criticism may be involved
*Becoming perfectionistic, feeling their work is never good enough, “overstudying” *Becoming overly concerned about grades and assignments
*Experiencing difficulty transitioning between home to school
*Avoiding activities with their peers, changes in peer interactions
*Becoming isolated, withdrawn
*Experiencing physical symptoms: complaining of fatigue, muscle aches, dizziness, nausea, stomachaches and headaches
*Constantly asking questions about upcoming events
*Experiencing sudden, unexplained, unpredictable changes in behavior

If you feel that your child may be suffering from anxiety, speak to your child’s teachers. What do they observe during the school day? Have they noticed any changes in behavior, attention, or grades? Have they observed any changes to your child’s social interactions? Contact a mental health professional and schedule an evaluation.

Please keep in mind that it is critical that this diagnosis come from a mental health professional. If it is determined that a child is suffering from anxiety, there are a number of interventions that may help alleviate some of the stress. Some strategies can be implemented immediately while others may take time. It is important that a child with anxiety be in classes with teachers who can effectively implement the strategies to support the student. Many children benefit from therapy, medication, or a combination of the two.

Remember, this a team effort involving the family, the therapist and the school. All must work together to provide anxious children with the reassurance, guidance and support they need to effectively manage their anxiety. These skills are essential to success in school…and beyond.

If you would like to speak with me about your child, please contact me at 914-522-8547 or