Fact: Anxiety runs in families.

If you're anxious, there's a greater chance your kids will be anxious, too.


*starts breathing into paper bag* GIF from "The Big Bang Theory."

But don't get anxious about having anxiety and giving it to your kids just yet. A new study suggests we might be able to do something about it.

Everything's gonna be OK. Maybe.

This is good news — because anxiety sucks.

Wouldn't it be great to learn how to prevent our kids from dealing with something that we wish we didn't have to deal with? That's exactly what researchers wanted to find out when they conducted a study, which was recently published in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

Here's how they approached the study.

First, they look at the facts.

10% of kids in the U.S. meet the criteria necessary to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. That's a lot of kids. What can we do about that?

Well, they also noted that children of anxious parents have a greater risk of developing anxiety disorders. Which makes sense, right? Because, as they noted, "specific parenting practices, such as modeling of anxiety and overcontrol/overprotection, contribute to elevated anxiety." Basically, if we're anxious, we do stuff in our daily parenting that can make our kids anxious, too.

The researchers pointed out that other programs aimed at reducing anxiety in kids, like family-based treatments and cognitive behavioral strategies, showed some promise.

Next, they embarked on a yearlong study to determine whether they could help kids of anxious parents avoid ending up anxious themselves.

Researchers looked at 136 families with kids between the ages of 6 and 13. At least one of the biological parents in each family had been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. Their kids, however, were not diagnosed with an anxiety disorder nor did they meet any criteria to warrant a diagnosis.

The families were divided into two groups:

1. The "information-monitoring" group

These parents received a 36-page informational packet about anxiety disorders in addition to information on treatment for anxiety. Basically, they handed them a stack of papers, told them "good luck," and then left them to figure things out on their own.

2. The "intervention" group

Instead of going it alone, these families were asked to attend eight 60-minute sessions with a licensed therapist over the course of eight weeks — plus three optional monthly "booster" sessions.

Your therapist, basically. GIF from "Jerry Maguire."

The first two therapy sessions were for the parents only, and the remainder were for the entire family. In the sessions, therapists taught families how to recognize signs of anxiety, how to reduce it, better problem-solving and parenting techniques, and other skills.

The conclusion? In the two groups studied, those that received additional help fared much better after one year.

At the end of the one-year study period, the children were again evaluated for anxiety disorders. Although 19 kids in the "here's your information manual, good luck" group — just over 30% — developed an anxiety disorder, the other group saw a lot more success.

Only three kids in the hands-on, expert-led group — 5% of participants — developed an anxiety disorder. That's an impressive difference — nearly sevenfold!

Thumbs up for good news! Image by iStock.

Dr. Golda Ginsburg, a psychiatry professor and the lead researcher in the study, explained to NPR that an extremely important thing parents were taught is that kids need to face their fears, not avoid them.

We anxious parents might be inclined to steer our kids clear of situations that could make them anxious, but that's pretty much the opposite of what we should be doing because, as Ginsburg said, "they need to help them face their fears in order to reduce their anxiety."

However, the research here isn't finished.

An notable limitation to the study, according to the researchers, was that the families studied were volunteers, most of them white and consisting of two-parent "relatively high" income families. And then, of course, there's the question of, "How do we actually help American families in general?"

So there's work to do to make this research truly useful. But until then, those of us with anxiety can keep this info in mind and find ways to help ourselves so we can help our kids.

I'll leave you with this bit of advice, from the authors of the book "Anxious Kids Anxious Parents" that echoes what the researchers taught study participants and feels like a good place to start:

"Worry and anxiety are normal. They show up when you are doing something new or different or challenging. Your job is to step into the uncertainty of life, not away from it. Knowing how to respond to your worry — not how to eliminate it — is the key. Parents must focus on raising children that can tolerate uncertainty and problem solve so that kids feel equipped as they grow."
Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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