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Video: Anxiety in America: How to help stressed kids

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updated 8/22/2012 1:32:29 PM ET 2012-08-22T17:32:29

While many kids are excitedly looking forward to starting school and seeing all their friends again, some anticipate their first day as a scary, wrenching and traumatic experience. After a long summer spent in the bosom of their families, they worry about what it’s going to be like to be away from home with a new teacher, heightened academic pressures and a different set of kids in the classroom.

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Even when that anxiety seems intense, in most cases it’s just a normal part of a kid’s life. Beginnings can always bring stress, and if parents provide reassurance, the anxiety usually fades as children get back into the rhythm of the school day and realize they’re up to the new challenges. 

For some kids, though, the anxiety just ramps up with each passing day, and can then begin to interfere with their daily life. And that may be a sign of something more serious. Studies have shown that one in eight children suffer from some sort of anxiety disorder, and school is a particularly tough stressor for kids already wired for worry.

“Parents need to know that anxiety is normal so they don’t overreact, but when a kid is obsessed with worry, if you see that it is dominating their lives, taking control in the sense that it is preventing them from doing daily activities you need to call your doctor,” said NBC chief medical editor Dr. Nancy Snyderman.

It’s the intensity and longevity of the worry that should trigger a parent’s attention, says psychologist Robin Goodman. “Everyone worries sometimes,” Goodman told TODAY. “But there are some people, even children, who just can’t stop or ignore their worries. When the worries and fears don’t go away, are inappropriate for their age, and stop children from engaging in their usual activities then an anxiety disorder might be present.

“For example, a child may be so worried about getting a perfect score on a test that he studies without respite, or a child might be so afraid of not having the right answer that she never raises her hand” in class.

Our only defense as parents is to know the signs, which can sometimes be subtle, of a kid who is becoming overly anxious. And those signs tend to change as a kid ages.

For preschoolers and kindergartners, separation anxiety can be the most prominent problem since many are leaving home for the first time. These kids may be overly clingy, complain of stomachaches or other ailments, or have meltdowns when parents try to drop them off.

“You might see kids crying or protesting going to school,” Rachel Busman a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute told TODAY. “Or even, you might see some outbursts and a little more defiance than usual.”

The switch from the lazy days of summer to a hectic school schedule can be especially tough for kids starting middle school. These children are already having to deal with the changes brought on by burgeoning adolescence, and now they’re having to cope with very different academic expectations.

“The transition to middle school can also be an anxiety-provoking time for kids because of the academic pressures of more homework and a locker and changing classes,” Busman said. “There’s also the added pressure of the onset of puberty and also the pressure of trying to negotiate more nuanced social relationships.”

For high schoolers, the stresses may be turned up even higher. Friendships are becoming more complicated and peer pressure is amping up. Some are already worrying about college.

“So you’re looking at how they manage before a test,” Goodman told TODAY’s Savannah Guthrie. “Are they consumed by it? Are they avoiding their friends?”

At this age, “you are definitely seeing more of the problematic behaviors,” Busman said. “You see kids dabbling into dangerous behaviors such as smoking and drinking. That certainly doesn’t happen for every high schooler, but vulnerable teenagers certainly can go down those paths, especially when they’re trying to manage stress.”

Parents may feel they’re out of the woods when they drop their college freshmen at the dorm. But this can be a very wrenching time for teens who have been looking forward to the freedom for years, but now may feel very alone and isolated.

“Independence is a tricky thing,” Goodman said. “It’s the push-pull of wanting it and being terrified by it. It’s a very tricky time of life. The safety net is gone and the temptations are huge.”

As parents try to help their kids, they need to remember the example they’re setting, Goodman said.

“The number one thing is to monitor your own anxiety,” she explained. “Kids have anxiety radar. If [you’re anxious] you communicate, that this is a scary situation, number one, and number two, ‘I don’t have confidence that you can handle it.’”

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