How much is too much anxiety for kids starting school?

HAMPTON ROADS, Va. - Many kids are excited to be back in school, but for others it can be a stressful time.

Mother of five Taneka Stewart said one of her children dealt with bullying which caused some anxiety in the past.

“It’s very difficult to watch as mom,” said Stewart.

She, like many other parents, say they work to have open lines of communication with their children.

“They have to fit in. They have to dress the right dress. They have to say the right words. They have to be on so they don’t get ostracized,” said Dr. Dr. Abbot Granoff, a psychiatrist based out of Virginia Beach.

Although fears and worries are typical in children, persistent or extreme forms of fear and sadness could be due to anxiety or depression, according to the CDC.

Dr. Granoff said he has treated children and adults in Hampton Roads for the past 40 years for all sorts of disorders like anxiety, depression, panic attacks and other mental issues.

He said any type of change can involve anxiety, but parents should be worried if they child shows more serious physical symptoms like headaches and nausea.

He said a kid may need professional help if the child is excessively crying a lot when they have to leave their house or have to leave the care of their parent or guardian.

He said he believes many children are misdiagnosed.

“I’ve seen kids with O.C.D. (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) be diagnosed as A.D.H.D. (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and they’re not A.D.H.D.,” said Dr. Granoff. “I’ve seen kids that are A.D.H.D. but they have behavioral problems, not A.D.H.D. There is also a lot of depression.”

For this generation, social media is part of kids' lives at a young age, and hearing about school shootings and preparing for one at their school is part of their reality.

“We want them to be prepared in case something horrible happens, but we pray that doesn’t happen,” said teacher Christina Walker.

She said it’s a balancing act between helping the kids understand but not overwhelming their young minds.

“They don’t understand but they have access to a lot of information,” said Walker. “We want to give them the facts, but also shelter them as much as possible because you still want kids to be kids."

“If that anxiety starts causing problems for the child, then they need to be treated,” said Dr. Granoff.

He said many people he has treated for panic attacks say they started when they were a child, and he warns that untreated anxiety and depression can be dangerous.

“If left untreated, often they’ll start experimenting with alcohol and street drugs,” said Dr. Granoff.  He stressed that not all kids who experiment with drugs and alcohol suffer from depression or anxiety.

Parents are encouraged to be alert to signs of extreme anxiety so they can intervene early to prevent future complications, according to the CDC.

They say all children experience some anxiety and that it’s normal and expected throughout development.

Below is information from the CDC:

Anxiety

When children do not outgrow the fears and worries that are typical in young children, or when there are so many fears and worries that they interfere with school, home, or play activities, the child may be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. Examples of different types of anxiety disorders include:

  • Being very afraid when away from parents (separation anxiety)
  • Having extreme fear about a specific thing or situation, such as dogs, insects, or going to the doctor (phobias)
  • Being very afraid of school and other places where there are people (social anxiety)
  • Being very worried about the future and about bad things happening (general anxiety)

Having repeated episodes of sudden, unexpected, intense fear that come with symptoms like heart pounding, having trouble breathing, or feeling dizzy, shaky, or sweaty (panic disorder)

Anxiety may present as fear or worry, but can also make children irritable and angry. Anxiety symptoms can also include trouble sleeping, as well as physical symptoms like fatigue, headaches, or stomachaches. Some anxious children keep their worries to themselves and, thus, the symptoms can be missed.

Depression
Occasionally being sad or feeling hopeless is a part of every child’s life. However, some children feel sad or uninterested in things that they used to enjoy, or feel helpless or hopeless in situations where they could do something to address the situations. When children feel persistent sadness and hopelessness, they may be diagnosed with depression.

Examples of behaviors often seen when children are depressed include:

  • Feeling sad, hopeless, or irritable a lot of the time
  • Not wanting to do or enjoy doing fun things
  • Changes in eating patterns – eating a lot more or a lot less than usual
  • Changes in sleep patterns – sleeping a lot more or a lot less than normal
  • Changes in energy – being tired and sluggish or tense and restless a lot of the time
  • Having a hard time paying attention
  • Feeling worthless, useless, or guilty

Self-injury and self-destructive behavior

Extreme depression can lead a child to think about suicide or plan for suicide. For youth ages 10-24 years, suicide is the leading form of death.
Some children may not talk about helpless and hopeless thoughts, and they may not appear sad. Depression might also cause a child to make trouble or act unmotivated, so others might not notice that the child is depressed or may incorrectly label the child as a trouble-maker or lazy.

Treatment for anxiety and depression

Here are tools to find a healthcare provider familiar with treatment options: