Anxiety among children is rising. What causes are behind this increase? And how can parents help stressed kids and alleviate their fears?

Many parents know this morning scene well: Your child complains her tummy hurts, or his throat is sore. Yet these symptoms have suddenly cropped up now that is it time to go to school, because the child was fine just last night. In your gut, you know your kid, and you know these are likely telltale signs of anxiety and wanting to avoid school.

This is an increasingly common dilemma that more parents face today than in previous decades. That’s because anxiety among children is on the rise, and school avoidance is a common side effect. In fact, anxiety is now the leading mental health issue among American youths today, surpassing depression. Research suggests the number of children dealing with anxiety is on the upswing. A study published in April in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, based on data collected from the National Survey of Children’s Health for ages 6 to 17, found a 20 percent increase in diagnoses of anxiety between 2007 and 2012.

“We live in highly competitive world that glorifies success,” said John Sargent, MD, Chief of Pediatric Psychiatry at Floating Hospital for Children at Tufts Medical Center. “There is a lot of concern and pressure for extraordinary amounts of success. It’s a combination of uncertainty and competition. I think we are aware of everything going on all the time now through media, and it is ubiquitous to think one is not as successful or well-liked as one wants to be thanks to social media.”

When the kids are not alright

Matthew Doyle, a clinical social worker and therapist who specializes in anxiety, sees the evidence of increased anxiety in kids in his private practice at Castle Hill Counseling & Consulting in Salem. Anxiety is particularly profound now for students with learning challenges.

“There are some pretty tangible reasons behind it,” said Doyle. “That includes the stress now put on school districts to perform. Pressure is at a much larger level than it was even a decade ago for students to score high on standardized tests. And when you are hard-wired to learn differently, you are already set up for difficulties.”

Like Sargent, Doyle thinks the use of social media is also stressing kids out and compounding their fear about the world. In a 24-7, always-on electronic world, kids now struggle to escape reminders of the very things that give them anxiety.

“People feel excluded when they see a group of friends off doing something,” explained Doyle. “It really amplifies anxiety. We are also constantly blasted with news and, in my opinion, it has created a pervasive sense of fear.”

Other causes for anxiety can include emotional trauma in a child’s life, such as coping with a divorce, or recovering from an assault or bullying. Kids with social difficulties can also come to dread school and feel anxiety about going to classes or outside activities if they struggle to connect with peers.

Tackling fear and worry

As a concerned parent, how do you help a kid struggling with anxiety and who may even be missing too much school because of it? Doyle suggests starting with open lines of communication to try and identify the problem that might be at the root of the anxiety.

“Maybe it’s a problem with a teacher, or maybe a kid causing problems in school. It’s important to cue in to red flags; like too much time in the nurse’s office. Kids will spend time in the nurse’s office because anxiety will manifest in stomachaches, for example.”

If you think your child is struggling with anxiety, it is also important to visit your pediatrician with concerns and discuss whether therapy might be appropriate. Build a bridge of communication with the school too, said Doyle.

“Get to know the nurse and the guidance counselor. Talk to the appropriate people at the school to have your child be on their radar as having some risks. Working with a therapist can also help you build that bridge and develop those relationships.”

However, Sargent cautions parents not to mistake a normal, healthy amount of worry with a more serious problem.

“It is normal to get anxious sometimes; to get charged up before a competitive event, for example. It’s normal to be concerned, worried or frightened occasionally. I think it is important for parents to differentiate these normal feelings and help kids tolerate and withstand them, and validate children’s occasional uncomfortable feelings.”

Developing a healthy balance that allows for electronics use occasionally, but staying away from too much social media, is also recommended, said Sargent. And parents should evaluate their own stress level and expectations too. Is it possible you are adding to your child’s anxiety by demanding too much?

“Parents need to monitor their own hopes for their child up against what the child can actually do,” said Sargent. “Of course, parents want their kids to do their best athletically or academically. But not every kid is chosen for symphony orchestra, or destined to get into Harvard or Yale. Or make the varsity team. Parents need to meet kids where they are and not make things conditional.”

There are many resources online for more information about coping with anxiety in children. Talk to your pediatrician for next steps if you think your child is struggling with stress and fear beyond normal levels.