Everybody, everywhere at some point in their lives needs someone to talk to, seriously, about what’s going on inside their head and heart. That’s why it’s time to normalize therapy for kids. Look at all of the things you’ve been through in life. The ups and downs, the wins and the losses, the grievances and the shocks. The adult things. You can’t go through your life without a confidante, a caring friend. We all need someone aware enough to notice when something’s wrong with us and brave enough to say something when they notice.
All adults need someone. All kids need someone. We need to normalize therapy because we’re all a bit … anxious.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, upwards of 5.8 million children have anxiety. The numbers have gotten so high that doctors are screening kids now. In October 2022, a panel of medical experts recommended for the first time that primary care doctors screen all kids ages 8 to 18 for anxiety. The goal is to try and reduce the number of kids whose mental health conditions go undetected and untreated — and that’s a lot of kids.
Although no one can say definitively why so many kids are anxious today, experts say a big culprit is social media. Using TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram or some other preferred app has a big impact on how kids communicate — or not — today.
What the Research Says
Jean M. Twenge, a research psychologist and author of the books iGen (Atria; 2018) and Generation Me (Atria; 2014) says it’s tough for kids to handle the sophisticated “next level” that social media delivers. Young minds are often unequipped to deal with complex situations.
“Kids are spending as much as eight hours a day on social media where there’s a lot of negativity, competition and jockeying for status,” Twenge reports. She says because of this, it’s imperative for parents to set limits on their kids’ technology use.
“It’s not only good for kids, but they appreciate it in the long run,” Twenge says.
So yes, you can do that. But what do you do now if you’ve noticed your child is anxious or closing themselves off in their room again on any given day? What action can you take at home and where do you turn if your instincts are flaring and telling you something just isn’t right for your child?
“The first step is for parents to be open to the idea that mental health challenges may affect their family,” says Meg Benningfield, M.D.. Benningfield is an Associate Professor of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences and Pediatrics, Director, Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
“None of us are immune to conditions like anxiety and depression which affect nearly one-third of Americans at some point in their lives,” she adds.
Next, be supportive by making space to learn about your child’s experiences and to look out for warning signs. These include persistent irritability, changes in sleep and appetite. In addition, kids who experience isolation, low mood and loss of interest in things should alert you, says Benningfield.
Talk About Hard Things
That little word called “time” becomes imperative when trying to reach an anxious child.
“Even if it’s just 10 minutes one morning, ask your child about specific events and experiences and allow them to open up to you,” says Katherine Spencer, Psy.D. Spencer is Assistant Professor of Clinical Pediatrics, Division of Psychology and Hospital Medicine, Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt.
“Talk with your child about hard things,” Spencer says. “Learn about your child’s perception of events in school, home, community and even world events. This can offer opportunities to support them with their own thoughts and feelings related to these situation,” she adds.
And don’t feel as though this is only happening in your home. Anxiety has crept itself into many young kids’ minds.
Benningfield says the most common mental disorder in kids are anxiety disorders.
“Anxiety disorders are different from ‘normal’ anxiety that everyone experiences,” says Benningfield. “When a child has an anxiety disorder, their fears and worries make it extremely hard to do things that they need to do. Like go to school, participate in a group activity or sleep alone in their own bed at night. Through treatment that includes exposure therapy, these fears and worries can diminish over time.”
Exposure therapy has been shown to be highly effective in treating anxiety disorder among children and teens. Discuss this with your pediatrician if you think your child could benefit.
Healthy Habits and Emotional Talk
All parents want their children to be healthy, happy and successful in the world. For that reason, seeking guidance is important.
“In general, children need a safe environment where they can explore and learn, opportunities to connect with other kids and space to develop at their own pace,” Benningfield says.
Take the lead with helping your anxious child by modeling healthy habits yourself. And make talking about feelings part of your daily language at home with your kids.
“Talking about emotions shows kids that feelings are an important part of how we experience the world,” Benningfield says. “Making space for feelings normalizes the experience and helps kids to learn strategies for coping when feelings get too big. One of a parent’s most important roles is modeling how to cope with difficult circumstances and how to regulate our reactions to hard things.”
If you’re concerned about your child, talk with your child’s doctor. Benningfield says many pediatricians are becoming more comfortable assessing and even starting treatment for kids with anxiety.