Survey: 38% of parents say their children experience anxiety
Nearly two in five (38 percent) parents say their child suffers from anxiety, according to a new survey commissioned by the American Osteopathic Association and conducted online by The Harris Poll.
The survey of over 600 parents with children younger than 18 showed that anxiety crosses economic, educational and gender lines. The findings reinforce research that shows anxiety has become more common among children.
The survey found that for parents of children who experienced anxiety, most often (37 percent of the time) the source of the anxiety is related to comparing oneself to peers. Pressure to perform well academically (35 percent) was the second most cited cause, followed by concerns related to social media (29 percent). Of the parents of children with anxiety, 20 percent said their child worries about the potential for a school shooting and 19 percent worry about violence at home or school.
“It’s not imaginary, kids are more anxious these days,” says Charles Sophy, DO, a psychiatrist in private practice in Beverly Hills as well as the medical director of the County of Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services.
It’s not imaginary, kids are more anxious these days.
“While we are more likely to treat anxiety as a legitimate issue than in past years, the corresponding rise in the use of anxiety medication—either prescribed or illicit—is acting as a Band-Aid that does not address underlying issues, and may even hinder progress for some children,” Dr. Sophy notes.
Links to substance abuse
Some osteopathic physicians are concerned that notable increases in access to anxiety medications and cannabis—which may be prescribed to parents or friends—mark the early signs of a drug epidemic.
The survey found 16 percent of parents who reported their children have experienced anxiety say their children have self-medicated with alcohol or recreational drugs and 13 percent have been hospitalized for abusing anxiety medications.
Dr. Sophy has noticed a rise in the number of children using marijuana, often in vaping devices, in both his private practice and in his work with the Department of Children and Family Services. While cannabis has been decriminalized in many states and may mitigate anxiety at the time of use, studies show marijuana use has lasting consequences on the development of a child’s brain. Cannabis is a known de-motivator that may prevent users from getting help for their anxiety.
Parents with children who have experienced anxiety report that therapy is the most common method of managing their child’s anxiety (30 percent). This was followed by exercise or sports (28 percent), TV, movies or video games (27 percent) and medication (21 percent). Just 11 percent attend a support group.
Identifying the trauma and the triggers at the heart of the child’s anxiety are essential to managing the condition. Behavioral family therapy is recommended, which Dr. Sophy says has the added benefit of improving communication at home. Group sessions also create a safe space for children to air their feelings and an opportunity to map out coping mechanisms.
“I’ve noticed a trickle-down effect. The anxiety parents feel related to economic instability, terrorism and violence, as well as cultural shifts happening in our country, manifests in their kids,” says Dr. Sophy. “We cannot address the high rates of anxiety in our children until we manage what’s happening from on top.”
We cannot address the high rates of anxiety in our children until we manage what’s happening from on top.
Survey data separated parents by household income, education, employment and marital status. Wealthier parents ($100k+ household income) were more likely to report their child had been hospitalized for abusing anxiety medication than parents with lower household income (less than $50k), 19 vs. 9 percent.
Anxiety levels improve when a child has a healthy balance of what Dr. Sophy calls “SWEEP” metrics. If a parent notices two or more behaviors have changed in recent months with their child, he recommends seeking help.
- Sleep: is the child sleeping significantly more or less than in previous years?
- Work: have there been changes in academic work or after-school job quality?
- Eating: is the child avoiding food or family meals, or overindulging compared to past behaviors?
- Emotions: is there unusual irritability, rage or ambivalence?
- Play: is the child still engaged in hobbies or sports they used to enjoy?
“Allowing anxiety to persist can lead to depression, self-harm and tragically, suicide,” Dr. Sophy says, “but when treatment focuses on the whole person, it is a condition that can be successfully managed and overcome as a child matures.”
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