What’s behind the rise of anxiety in children and teens?

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Researchers say ‘helicopter’ parents and electronic devices are partially to blame

Research shows that anxiety is becoming a growing problem for children and teens, with experts pointing to a myriad of potential causes. One recent study found that overprotective “helicopter” parents could be partially to blame for rising anxiety levels.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) suggests the increase can also be attributed to digital devices and their impact on the brain. Still, “we can only speculate as to the cause,” said Dr. Steve Levine, a board-certified psychiatrist, mental health expert, and founder and CEO of Actify Neurotherapies.

In an interview with ConsumerAffairs, Levine explained that these causes and other associated factors are creating undue stress in children and teens.

Causes of anxiety in kids

Levine says that for some teens, anxiety levels may be influenced by sleep -- or a lack thereof.

“We know that teens need more sleep than adults, and there is more competition for the zzz’s than ever these days. Like their parents, many kids are overscheduled, and there are only so many hours in the day,” he said.

Add in teens’ constant access to digital devices like smartphones and iPads, and you’ve got  “perpetual daylight in the bedroom,” Levine said. Each of these devices “comes with its own set of social pressures and expectations, he added. “Plus the mental stimulation of decision making and keeping up with the crowd.”

The holidays can also contribute to kids’ stress and anxiety. In addition to having their normal routine interrupted, kids’ support systems may change or become unavailable due to holiday travel.

“Expectations about it being the happiest time of year, pressures to join in ‘the holiday spirit’, forced family time, keeping up with social pressures, and anniversaries of losses can all contribute [to increased anxiety],” Levine said.

Reducing kids’ anxiety

Signs that your child may be suffering from anxiety include excessive worry and trouble concentrating and sleeping. Physical symptoms like fatigue, headaches, or stomach aches can also be red flags for parents.

To reduce anxiety, researchers suggest letting kids engage in some forms of risky play (such as climbing to great heights or allowing roughhousing) so that they can learn how to navigate potentially dangerous situations. Doing so can help boost kids’ confidence and resilience and result in lower anxiety levels over time.

Unfortunately, many children try to keep their anxiety and worries to themselves. When this happens, sometimes their first thought can be “what’s wrong with me,” Levine explains. He says education about anxiety and stress, as well as their links to physical symptoms can go a long way towards reducing children’s anxiety. Normalizing anxiety can also help.  

“Kids don’t realize how common this is, and believe they must suffer alone,” Levine said. “If symptoms persist, seeing a counselor or therapist who is trained in techniques like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) may help.”

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