Post-Pandemic Anxiety on the Rise for Children & Teens

When the world first heard of coronavirus (COVID-19) in early 2020, many were confused, scared, and frustrated by the lack of information about this rapidly spreading virus. Schools and businesses were shut down, nonessential workers were sent home, and families were left to fend for themselves. To say that anxiety was on the rise for kids and teenagers during this time may be a bit of an understatement. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, prior to 2020, a little over 9% of children 3-17 years old were diagnosed with having some form of anxiety compared to more than 12% post-pandemic.

Many children and teenagers struggle with mental health challenges that impact their full access to and participation in learning, and these challenges are often misunderstood and can lead to behaviors that are inconsistent with school or societal expectations. Research conducted regarding the rates of child and adolescent mental illness during the pandemic demonstrates the substantial impact: between January and October 2020, the rates of mental health-related emergency department visits increased 24% for 5-11-year-olds and 31% for 12-17-year-olds (Leeb et al., 2020).

Clearly the COVID-19 global pandemic greatly intensified these challenges. So how can we help our youth navigate these uncertain times? Let’s identify the different types of anxiety disorders as well as how to help our children cope and be successful in the “new normal”.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recognizes five main types of anxiety:

–     Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) – chronic anxiety, exaggerated worry or tension for extended periods of time (months, years) that interferes with daily functioning. Symptoms include feeling restless or on-edge, difficulty concentrating, being irritable, sleeping problems, unexplained aches and pains, and difficulty controlling feelings of worry.

–     Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) – characterized by recurrent, unwanted thoughts (obsessions) and/or repetitive behaviors (compulsions). OCD can manifest in different ways for everyone such as counting, cleaning, motor tics, having aggressive thoughts towards self or others, and making things symmetrical or in perfect order. These thoughts or behaviors cause significant problems in an individual’s daily life.

–     Social Anxiety Disorder – characterized by overwhelming anxiety and excessive self-consciousness in everyday situations. Individuals with social anxiety disorder worry their anxious actions or behaviors will be negatively evaluated by others, leading them to feel embarrassed or avoid social situations altogether.

–     Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – commonly experienced after a shocking, scary, or dangerous event. Symptoms in adults can include flashbacks, bad dreams, frightening thoughts, being easily startled, difficulty sleeping, and having angry outbursts. Some children and teens may have different symptoms than adults such as bed wetting, acting out the scary event during playtime, forgetting/unable to talk, and being increasingly clingy. Anyone can develop PTSD at any age, but not everyone with PTSD has been through a dangerous event.

–     Panic Disorder – unexpected and repeated episodes of intense fear, discomfort, or lack of control. During a panic attack, individuals may experience sweating, chest pains, trembling or tingling, and feelings of impending doom or being out of control. Not everyone who experiences a panic attack will develop a panic disorder.

Some ways you can help your child struggling with anxiety:

–     Open communication – let your child know they can express their thoughts and feelings in a safe environment.
–     Exercise and movement – get outside, go on a walk, weightlift, or sign up for a group or individual workout class.
–     Diet improvements – eat less processed foods and more homecooked meals.
–     Therapy and support groups – MPS offers virtual and in-person options for children, teens, and adults.
–     Medication – can help reduce the symptoms of anxiety, panic attacks, or extreme fear and worry. Consult your psychiatrist for more information on which medication(s) may work for your child.

Contact us today to learn more about anxiety disorders or to schedule a consultation for you or your child.