Where is anxiety in children coming from?

May 26, 2023, 2:00 PM

Anxiety in children, especially teenage girls, is on the rise....

Anxiety in children is being observed and reported more and more. (Ryan Sun/Deseret News)

(Ryan Sun/Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — We’ve heard a lot about the increased anxiety in teenagers in America. It’s especially pertinent among teenage girls. But anxiety in children is still a big trend we’re seeing nationwide. 

Recent numbers from the CDC show that three in five teenage girls have felt hopeless, one of those serious enough to have suicidal thoughts,” said Dr. Tamara Sheffield, senior medical director of Preventive Medicine at Intermountain Health.

That is a 60% increase from the prior year.


What about elementary-age kids?

“We’re seeing anxiety rise across the board in all kiddos,” said Dr. Annie Deming, a psychologist at Intermountain Primary Children’s Hospital. “I think it’s a bit more recognized in teenagers because they have the language skills to describe what they’re experiencing. With elementary-aged kids, it might come out in different ways.”

Is there actually more anxiety in young people today, or is it just being diagnosed more often?

“Both,” said Deming. “I do think there is more anxiety, but I also think it’s being labeled and diagnosed more frequently.”

What causes all this anxiety in children?

“There are a lot of things,” Deming explained. “We’re living in a higher stress environment than we have in generations past. It’s not that other generations didn’t have stressors, but the stressors are more in our faces now.”

Two big areas of concern when it comes to anxiety in children are COVID-19 and social media.

“There is a lot of research coming out about how COVID impacted families and children in particular,” Deming said.

She explained that in the world we live in today, we talk about climate change, people hating each other and wars going on. That, in itself, is not different from other generations. What is different is that we can’t get away from it, and there is no decompression time.

Deming believes the impact of social media is even greater than COVID.

“The CDC recently came out with a report that it’s one of the highest negative impacts on child mental health,” she said.

How do we treat anxiety in children?

“Some elementary kids do take medication if the anxiety is so high that they can’t access a different intervention therapy,” Deming explained.

The difference between regular kid angst and something that may need to be diagnosed is “all about functional impairment,” Deming said. “If it gets to a point where they can’t do normal kid activities, where they’re not spending time with friends or engaging in hobbies or sports… if it gets to the point that they’re really not able to settle down and just be a kid, that’s when we need to look at diagnosing and treating.”

If parents are concerned that their young child may need to be treated for anxiety, start with the primary care physician. “Pediatricians are becoming more and more trained on how to recognize and intervene with mental health challenges,” said Deming.

They can do hard things

Many of us have heard children (and adults) use this language: “That triggers me.” “I can’t do that — it triggers me.”

The word trigger seems to contain some power to stop the normal course of things.

Deming helped explain where that word came from.

“There is a need to reduce stigma around mental health, and that’s how that language came about,” she said. “We have to acknowledge that sometimes things are triggering and upsetting, but the mental health community and behavioral health providers would say that that does not mean that you don’t do it.”

She encouraged parents to approach triggers and other challenges in a way that will help children become stronger and not necessarily avoid things just because they’re distressing.

She also emphasized the need for balance. “We have to have a nice balance of experiences that build resiliency and just… having fun. Kids and families connecting and enjoying time together are going to be a huge protective factor for your kids’ mental health.”

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Where is anxiety in children coming from?