Nineteen-year-old Sabrina has experienced feelings of nervousness, uncertainty, and insecurity for most of her adolescent life—particularly when it comes to the classroom.
From middle school on, she rigorously over-prepared, making straight As and enrolling in a full load of honors and advanced-placement courses. Her teachers also encouraged her to get involved in as many extracurricular activities as possible for the sake of preparing for college admissions. Despite her perfect grades and apparent success, she worried constantly about what people thought of her and how she was being perceived. She became terrified of confrontation or punishment, even when she’d done nothing wrong.
Additionally, she saw peers around her balancing a job and learning to drive. “I had no idea how it was possible. Based on the high standards I’d set for myself, I could barely manage my normal school workload—and that often took all night,” she says.
Her growing anxiety led to experiencing times of involuntary shaking, an elevated heart rate, a racing mind, and even vomiting. She had bouts of insomnia and eventually full-blown panic attacks, which forced her to remain home from school (even though an absence would make her worry about what she was missing).
At this point, her mother, realized they were up against something they couldn’t fix—even though as a Christian family they’d prayed nightly for years, naming Sabrina’s worries out loud. “I think we can be too quick to think that anxiety is a completely spiritual problem; that the one who suffers just doesn’t trust God enough,” her mother says. “Those who suffer from anxiety would like nothing better than to cast their cares away—they just aren’t able to do it.”
Sabrina’s parents turned to their family doctor, who eventually diagnosed Sabrina with general and social anxiety disorder and recommended therapy and medication for a certain period of time.
Sabrina is one of more than 6 million American teens grappling with an anxiety disorder of some kind. While not every child’s experience is as extreme as Sabrina’s, some experts believe this number is actually low, considering that many adolescents don’t always seek treatment. Further, it doesn’t take into account children under 12, whom therapists say are also increasingly facing anxiety that exceeds normal childhood fears and worries.
Just within the last five years, Sissy Goff, a licensed Christian counselor for children and adolescents in Nashville, has seen a dramatic increase in the number of new young clients she has begun treating for anxiety. “When I first started counseling twenty-four years ago, probably one out of every twenty kids coming in were dealing with anxiety,” she says. “Now, out of my new appointments, I would say at least sixteen of every twenty families are here for that reason, if not more.”
More Pressure, More Stimulus, More Trickle-Down Stress
Experts believe the rising number of children and adolescents dealing with anxiety is the result of several cultural, biological, and familial factors. As was the case with Sabrina, the emphasis placed on succeeding academically, along with the demands of the college application process, can feel daunting. So can the reality of expensive university tuition.
Kids today are also coming of age in a time when they’ve never known life apart from smartphones, social media, terrorism, and global conflict. They feel pressure to create and manage a digital identity. And they have endless information at their technological fingertips which has the potential to emotionally overwhelm them.
“They’re in a cauldron of stimulus they can’t get away from, or don’t want to get away from, or don’t know how to get away from,” remarked Janis Whitlock in a recent Time magazine article on depression and anxiety in the American adolescent. (Whitlock leads a research program at Cornell on self-injury and recovery, as many teens now use cutting to deal with anxiety.)
Even young children can experience a prolonged sense of neurological agitation that comes from screen-time associated with activities such as video games. “The brain becomes overstimulated and doesn’t have a way to calm itself back down,” Goff says. “So kids stay in an anxious frame of mind.”
For this reason, a growing number of parents are beginning to realize that firmer boundaries are necessary when it comes to their child's need to have a daily segment of time when they separate from their phones or screens entirely—even if this means facing push-back. “I think parents are so afraid of disappointing their kids,” says Megan Croft, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Nashville. “But I want them to get really comfortable sitting in that tension of doing what is best for their child, even if it makes them upset.”
Additionally, many “children are not accessing the outdoors, engaging in enough regular physical activity, and experiencing the benefit of child-led free play,” adds Vanessa Lapointe, PhD, a parenting author and psychologist in British Columbia. “This changes the chemical makeup of the brain and lead to increases in anxiety and related mood shifts.”
Even adolescents who reap the benefits of outdoor play and sports can be at risk of anxiety that comes from a hyper-scheduled routine. “Kids have pressure at school, then they go to an after-school activity where it’s not just about fun anymore,” says Angie Gage, director of women at Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville. “Sports have become high-performance activities—very competitive. It’s not just about succeeding on the school team, but the year-round team,” she says. Two of Gage’s four children have experienced anxiety, and she often counsels and speaks to women in her large church about its prevalence among families.
“We’ve lost the art of slowing,” Gage says. “We would do well to evaluate where we as parents need more margin—a less ‘fast, more, and doing’ mentality. We have to learn how to practically slow down before we expect our kids to do the same.”
Lapointe agrees. Kids also need daily time to connect and engage—eye-to-eye—with their parents in a relaxed setting where stressors are minimized and the volume of life is turned down, she adds.
Similar to depression, anxiety can stem from family history, biological factors, or environmental stressors (or a combination of these causes). What makes anxiety so predominant is its trickle-down effect, says Croft. “I think it’s incredibly contagious—like the flu,” she says.
To this point, a recently published study reveals that one in six American adults take at least one psychiatric drug, usually an anti-anxiety medication or antidepressant, and most have been doing so for a year or more. Women are about twice as likely to get these kind of prescriptions filled than men. The data demonstrates that many American parents are not only increasingly anxious but are addressing emotional pain with more long-term use of medication.
Simultaneously, some of these adults come from the generation of helicopter parenting, where moms and dads go to great lengths to shield their children from emotional pain, fear, or discomfort. Their own anxiety—coupled with the desire to protect their kids from stress instead of allowing them to feel the weight of it and work through it—may be causing more harm than good.
An Endless Loop of Worry
In some regards, anxiety in kids manifests itself in similar ways as it does in adults. Opposed to actually experiencing a traumatic event, it’s the fear of something bad happening (no matter how rational or unfounded) that can create within children uncontrollable angst or worry.
The key to distinguishing a healthy amount of normal childhood fear from one that seems insurmountable is determining how the anxiety is functionally impacting a child’s development, Lapointe says. “For example, if your child is somewhat hesitant to leave you in the mornings and head to school, but with a little extra love and care can tolerate the separation, you probably have a child who just has a higher need of connection with the parent,” she explains. “However, if the child is having prolonged meltdowns every morning, losing her mind with challenging behaviors every day after school, or isn’t sleeping at night out of fear about having to go to school again the next day, then this is likely an anxiety disorder. The fear and resulting behavior are interfering with the child’s ability to engage in everyday life and develop in a healthy manner.”
Anxiety has a way of enveloping children in an endless loop of worry they can’t escape, Goff explains. For some, it’s the fear of throwing up at school or of being separated from their parents. For others—particularly those who’ve learned how to navigate technology—it’s becoming aware of realities such as sexual assault, suicide, or terminal illness, and then beginning to incessantly fixate on whether those kind of scenarios could possibly happen to them.
Anxiety in children and adolescents can often be mistaken for behavior problems or learning disabilities as kids act out or have problems remaining focused because of their all-encompassing fears. Experiences such as learning how to read, going to the doctor, travelling on an airplane, participating in a sleepover, playing a team sport, riding an escalator, or even managing chaotic classroom settings or academic expectations can produce intense stress in kids whose anxiety soars at the thought of having to learn a new skill or navigate a challenging environment.
Learning to Face Fears
The path forward for anxious kids, Croft says, is helping them learn to externalize the feelings causing them so much fear. “When kids learn to name and recognize their worries, then those feelings can become a target they can attack,” she says.
This was true for Gage’s son, who, through counseling, gained what Gage describes as an “emotional vocabulary” that helped her son put words to his worries when it came his anxiety about making friends and succeeding in school. He also began to learn how to normalize situations—recognizing that sadness or fear are feelings all people experience. “Then we worked on just letting him be in that place of sadness or worry,” Gage explains. “We discovered it wasn’t about trying to ignore or fix the feeling but allowing those emotions to be his teacher.”
This step is crucial, Croft says. “So often people will say things such as, ‘Don’t worry’ or ‘God has a plan.’ While these things are inherently true, saying them can feel diminishing to someone struggling with anxiety. The last thing we want to do is minimize a child’s feelings or make her feel like we’re trying to hastily fix her.”
Instead, empathetic parents or a counselor can enter a child’s pain through extending compassion, strength, comfort, and power. “You can say, ‘I care so much that you’re struggling,’” Croft suggests. “And ‘I can’t promise you scary stuff won’t happen, but I can promise that you are strong enough to handle it, and I will walk with you through it.’”
This approach reflects the truth that Christ did not come to prevent people from ever experiencing suffering but to be a constant presence through pain and worry, Croft says. “In Romans 5, Paul begins with telling us that making sense of our pain produces endurance and hope. And as so we do so, we carry the promise that God will be with us. This is the very essence of the meaning of the word Emmanuel.”
Croft believes God created humanity in such a fashion that anxiety builds with isolation but dissipates with authentic community. To this end, Gage also suggests that the more parents can form deep connections with their child, the more they can discover what triggers their child’s anxiety. Parents can then help remove unnecessary stressors while also cultivating courage by helping their child learn to work through their fears. “The goal isn’t to try to fix your child, but to help them navigate something that is a part of who they are,” Gage says.
For Sabrina’s mother, this happened as she realized that while her daughter was intellectually capable of handling the most difficult school courses, those demanding classes weren’t the best thing for her emotionally. “As a result, we dropped some of those AP classes,” she says. “I think culturally we try to push our kids ahead and give them every academic advantage, not realizing we can stress them out in an unhealthy way.”
The fact that Sabrina chose to lighten her academic load didn’t result in lasting harm. She still was accepted to college and, as a National Merit Scholar, even received a full scholarship to the University of Central Florida where she’s currently a freshman. She remains intentional about managing her anxiety on a daily basis—but it is not easy. When tempted to worry, her mom says they remember God’s faithfulness in the past as he provided healing through counseling, new friendships, and an open door to the right college. “Keeping an eye on his goodness in the past has been helpful in providing hope for the future,” she says.
The reality that Scripture repeatedly tells us to not be afraid or anxious shouldn’t feel like a harsh commandment to the anxious person as much as it should feel like words of deep comfort, Croft says. “If anything, it should help us realize that God knew we’d face fear and anxiety, and he wants to surround and love us in those worries. He promises to never leave us alone in our anxiety, and that is really good news.”
Corrie Cutrer is a writer who lives in the Nashville area with her family. She is also a former assistant editor of Today's Christian Woman and a recipient of several EPA writing awards.