LHISD opens discussion to tackle childhood anxiety

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By Kristen Meriwether

Anxiety is a normal human emotion. It’s the butterflies we feel prior to giving a speech to a large group. Or the rapid heartbeat we experience when up to bat with the game on the line.

The reactions are part of our autonomic nervous system, a series of primal responses designed to protect us when we are in danger. This system is the reason you don’t have to think about slamming on the brakes when a deer jumps out in front of the car. You simply do it.

But what may start as a normal response to external stress can blossom into bigger problems. Instead of pre-speech butterflies, it becomes waking up in the middle of the night, mind racing, unable to go back to sleep. Or instead of being nervous about a big match, it’s forfeiting it completely as tennis star Mardy Fish did prior to a fourth round match in the 2012 U.S. Open.

Fish was later diagnosed with extreme anxiety disorder, something that is becoming more common. And it’s not just professional athletes with millions on the line. Research is showing childhood anxiety has been increasing steadily since 2007.

According to the National Institute of Health, nearly one in three adolescents aged 13 to 18 will experience an anxiety disorder. A survey conducted by the Child and Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative showed anxiety disorders in children and teens increased by 20% between 2007 and 2012.

For kids, who are just learning to manage and control their emotions, the increased anxiety can be a lot to deal with. For parents, who just want the best for their child, it can be terrifying.

To help parents tackle the challenges that high stress and anxiety in children can bring to the household, the Liberty Hill Independent School District Counselor Connection hosted its first PAWsitive Parenting Session on Oct. 27.

Missy Whitsett, a counselor at Santa Rita Middle School, funded the talk through a grant from the LHISD Education Foundation. Whitsett got the idea after seeing a similar program’s success in her former district, Dripping Springs.

“We started with just a couple of sessions one year, and the education foundation ended up funding it,” Whitsett said. “It took off like crazy.”

Whitsett said after seeing the success of the program the Dripping Springs Education Foundation provided funding for more counselors and resources. She doesn’t have plans for that here in Liberty Hill yet, but hopes to open the door to more conversations.

“Last night was really just a first step,” Whitsett said. “We are trying to start somewhere, and then we’re going to build from there.”

At LHISD’s first PAWsitive Parenting session Dr. Karen Kinsel Silcox, a child development and social emotional learning specialist, gave an hour and a half presentation that unpacked the issues and helped offer solutions.

Silcox noted the increase in anxiety in children coincided with the invention of the iPhone in 2007. But she said her research showed social media, the high pressures kids face to succeed, and living in an uncertain world as contributing factors as well.

Children today, many of whom grew up in front of an iPad or tablet, are forming their world view based on what they see on social media, which is a curated version of the real world. Their ability to feel accepted becomes based on “likes” and online comments. The fear of negative comments leads to a lot of anxiety.

Children are also under immense pressure to succeed. Instead of going out and having fun at their game, kids are worrying how their performance will affect getting a scholarship. Instead of focusing on the information on the test, kids are worried about how their grade will affect their ability to get into college. The focus is on outcomes, not performance.

Kids are doing this in what feels like a very uncertain world. Currently there are no major global wars, prosperity is at an all time high and medical technology is helping to cure or fight diseases that once wiped out large portions of the population. It’s been argued that there has never been a safer time for humans to be alive.

But turn on the news or open social media and it doesn’t feel that way. Every school shooting is magnified, incidences of violence in remote parts of the world are brought right into your living room and phone alerts bring people the latest disaster in real time. For kids the inundation of largely negative events paints a scary world view that is creating extreme fear and anxiety.

That anxiety can manifest in a variety of ways including acting out at home or at school, or withdrawing from social events. And it can result in physical symptoms like upset stomachs, or headaches that will keep kids from having to go where the stress is coming from—school.

“Anxiety can lead to children missing class time if they’re going to the nurse for an upset stomach, headaches, etc.,” Silcox said. “That’s pulling them out of the classroom, so they’re losing instructional minutes.”

Silcox said there is a lot of advice out there, but there is no magic formula to “cure” anxiety.

“If a child starts to feel anxious, don’t worry so much about it has to be three of this and five of that,” Silcox said.

She recommends simple strategies like putting the phone down to check in with your child and walking outside, which helps to naturally release feel-good endorphins.

To help alleviate some of the school pressure Silcox recommended focusing on the process, not just the outcome. For example, instead of telling the child to go to their room to learn their spelling words, invite them to write the words in sidewalk chalk outside. The task becomes something fun instead of the pressure of an outcome.

Silcox also pointed out the advantage of letting kids understand that it’s okay to fail or make a mistake. Parents natural instincts is to fix problems for their kids, which may save them from the initial pain. But it doesn’t teach kids the valuable lesson of resiliency.

“If we never let them stumble, they don’t know they can get back up,” Silcox said.

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