Anxiety: The Untold Epidemic of 2021 Kids

May 1, 2021

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You probably haven’t heard many people talking about how badly our kids are absorbing the “adult response to the coronavirus”. No one is really addressing it. The phones at my office are ringing off the hook with desperate parents trying to get help for their anxious kids. In this podcast, I talk about the problem, share three examples of what anxiety does to kids, and how you can effectively respond to your child, if you see the signs.

Podcast Transcript

Hi, I’m Dr. Brenna Hicks, The Kid Counselor. Today I wanted to share something with you that’s been on my heart that I think is something that every parent and every adult with a child in their life that they love needs to be aware of. We have a 60 person wait list currently at our Center; we’re already seeing 75 kids a week, and the phone does not stop ringing. And I tell you all that to say 90% of the calls that we are getting are related to anxiety. So parents are calling in and describing things and saying, “I’m not really sure what’s going on, but I know something’s not okay.” “I don’t really know if this is anxiety, but it kind of seems like it is.” And all of the messages and all of the complaints that we’re getting from parents who are concerned about the well being of their Children, it all funnels back to extremely high levels of anxiety.

And why I think it’s important to talk about this is because I feel that it’s a little bit of a silent concern. I don’t think that it’s being discussed. I don’t think it’s in people’s awareness. And I want you to pay attention to your little ones in your life, to your kids, to your grandkids, to the people that you’re around. Be aware, notice, watch, look, listen, there are telltale things that are screaming how scared our kids are and I want us to be able to be equipped to handle that.

One of the greatest concerns that I have is that the spike of this increase has only happened within the last nine or so months. I would say probably early summer of 2020, the volume of calls for anxiety in kids has just skyrocketed. Whereas before I might have an anxiety call one out of 5, 6, or 7, now 90% of our calls are wrapped up in fear worry, anxiety, panic, OCD, the list goes on. And I want us to know what’s going on. I want us to know what to do and I want us to handle this well.

Before I get into some of those ideas though, I wanted to share a few stories of children that I’m actually currently working with so that it might shed some light and paint a picture on what anxiety might look like. Because it can look different, even though there’s some continuity in what’s going on in anxious kids. So I recently got a call from a family where the child was vomiting pretty regularly and they could not really figure out why. So they went to gastroenterologists, and they went to pediatrician, and they did all kinds of tests. And short of scoping down into the digestive system – that’s where the parents said, ‘okay I don’t want to go that far.’ But they ran almost every test they could think of. And really it was pretty inconclusive as to why he was continually vomiting. But he’s little, he’s four, and he began to associate “I throw up because I eat.” So at that point the fear became so overwhelming, so strong, so powerful, he decided that to solve the problem he just wouldn’t eat anymore.

So my little four year old comes into me the first week with an NG tube taped to the back of his neck. For those of you that aren’t familiar, it’s a tube that actually goes into the nose, down to the stomach and they can actually liquid feed him through the tube because he refused to swallow anything. Not just food, he refused to drink milk, he refused to drink water. He was extremely dehydrated. He was hospitalized. He’d lost weight. And comes to play with me with an NG tube taped to the back of his neck. And that is so shocking and tragic to me that four year old kids have such high levels of anxiety that they’re paralyzed in fear that food is making them throw up and therefore they’re going to stop eating.

Thankfully, I’ll give you some good news. Thankfully, he is not on an NG tube anymore. He is starting to eat food again and he is recovering and doing much better. But a four year old walking into my office being fed through a tube says a lot about what’s going on with our kids right now.

Another story – I’m working with a 14 year old girl, really high levels of anxiety. And recently… It started after a bout with Covid actually. She was very sick to her stomach during Covid. So Covid actually made her vomit on a daily basis for about a week when she had it and after recovery she became so, I guess, conditioned to vomit on a daily basis that she started purposefully binging and purging and actually developed an eating disorder as a result. So for about the last month or so she’s been purposefully binging and purging so that she could lose weight. Now you may say, I don’t really see how that’s an anxiety thing, that seems more like an eating disorder. But let me make it very clear what often is seen and observed in behaviors, if you boil it down and funnel it down to a root cause, it is absolutely anxiety and fear.

And what you need to understand about this girl is she is desperately clinging at any measure of control that she can get because life is so overwhelming for her. So let me set kind of an expectation of behavior for children. Kids have a very limited set of things that they have control over. So realistically speaking, you have eating, sleeping, obedience, and bathroom habits. Those are really the main four over which kids have any measure of control. So if you are watching a power struggle at home with one of those four issues – eating, sleeping, bathroom, or behavior and obedience, then that is likely rooted in a power grab. A control struggle, which often is driven by anxiety and fear. Because when you feel fear, when you feel out of control, when you feel powerless, the only thing you know to do is try to grasp and take it because it makes you feel better.

Vulnerable is scary and being at the mercy of your circumstance is scary, and the unknown is scary. So the only thing that kids can grasp onto is trying to take control where they can get it. And in this 14 year old girl’s case, she has been dealt quite a few whammies in this last year academically, personally, in her family life – there’s just been a lot going on. And the world seems overwhelming and scary and she openly admits how she has huge levels of anxiety. She’ll text me and say, “I just had a panic attack.” But what that means is she’s trying to control the world because it seems scary, rooted in anxiety. So now she’s developed an eating disorder. We’re working through that, we’re treating that appropriately, things are getting better. That was example number two.

Example number three – I just talked to a family this morning as a matter of fact, little guy, five years old out of the blue a couple of weeks back says to his parents, “Sometimes I feel pressure right here” and he pushed toward his heart. Then a little while later, he complained about his hands being clammy. And mom and dad felt his hands and they were really sweaty. At another point, another conversation, he said that sometimes he doesn’t feel well and he feels like he’s going to throw up. Long story short – visit to the pediatrician. Nothing is wrong. Clean bill of health. Everything checks out. It becomes very evident that this is an anxiety issue. What does that mean? Somatic concerns. Somatic is a fancy word for your body telling you, through symptoms, what you are feeling emotionally. So if we get a lump in our throat, we get butterflies in our stomach, we get a little bit nauseous, we get headaches, those are all indicators of emotions that are wreaking havoc on our bodies when they’re not addressed appropriately.

So after that meeting this morning, I will be starting with that little guy next week. So there’s three examples of very different looks of what’s going on with the lives of kids right now and the anxiety levels. But they’re all rooted in fear, and worry, and panic, and paranoia, and extremely high levels of anxiety. So what does that mean for us? I want you to be equipped. I want you to be able to handle this appropriately.

So first and foremost, the very first baseline thing to do is to be aware and on the lookout for things that you might normally write off as unrelated. So if a child is constantly refusing to go into a room alone, if a child is constantly coming into your room at night, if a child does not want to go play with new friends, if they’re refusing to eat, if they’re not sleeping well; there’s all kinds of things that you can easily write off as an unrelated issue. Start to look at it through the lens of ‘Could this be caused by a fear? Could this be caused by worry? Could this be related to anxiety?’ That will help create an awareness of what’s going on. Then, once you decide – “My child is that way, someone I know’s child is that way, someone in my family’s child is that way.” Once you’re aware, it’s helpful to talk about it. Not with the child, but talk about it with people in your life to come alongside and support you.

So it’s very important to meet the child in their emotion. It is not our job to make them feel better. It is not our job to alleviate the fear. It is not our job to tell them that it will be okay. It is not our job to redirect them, or distract them, or try to fix it. None of those things will immediately solve anything. What will immediately solve the issue is to reflect their feeling, acknowledge what they’re going through and let that be enough. I’ve done all kinds of other podcasts and articles and videos about the sitting in the feeling with them and letting that be enough. This is one of those instances where nothing you can do is more effective.

So the child shows you, probably nonverbally… remember they’re not verbal, so it will probably be a nonverbal expression of fear. And in that moment, you say, “You’re worried about that. That surprised you. You didn’t expect that. You’re concerned that might happen. You’re not sure. That’s confusing. That’s scary. You feel overwhelmed. Pick the feeling that you think fits best and say it back to them in a 1. You 2. Feeling word statement. “You are… (fill in the blank)” and let that be enough. They may say yes, they may say no, they may correct you, they may let that be the impetus for a whole new conversation about what they’re feeling. Don’t expect a response or a specific reaction. Just know that you are communicating to them, “I’m here, I hear you, I understand and I care.”

We call those the Be With Attitudes. Those are the most important things you can do for a fearful child is communicate through what you say and how you respond, “I’m here. I hear you, I understand and I care.” Your feelings matter, your feelings are valid, your feelings are important. I’m not going to try to change your mind. I’m not going to try to make it better for you. I’m not going to try to do anything other than just be with you in this moment.

And finally you do not have to do this alone… So takeaways: Please be aware, recognize, see what’s going on with kids that you love. Second: surround yourself with people and come at it in a unified approach where you acknowledge where the child is and you meet them in the feeling. But also know that you don’t have to do this alone. I know you may not live close to the Tampa Bay area and you may not have access to us at the Center. But we, really soon, within a month or so are launching an In Home Play Therapy program specifically to help you address things just like this. So if you need someone to come alongside you, and train you, and support you, help you understand the best ways to handle things from a play therapy perspective. You may not be able to meet with a play therapist, you may live in a state that’s shut down, you may live in a state that doesn’t have a play therapist close by. This In Home Play Therapy program is the solution to all of those concerns because it gives you the training to use play therapy principles and help your child work through their fears, their worries, their anxieties at home with you. Which is ideal because you love the child, you want what’s best for the child, you get equipped to bring them to that place of healing. So stay on the lookout. We’re so excited to launch that.

Know that the anxiety issue with kids is much bigger than we think, it’s much bigger than we’re talking about. And I want us to be on the front lines of defense for that. I want us to notice, and pay attention, and be aware, and be equipped. So let me know how I can help. Shoot me an email. Let me know what questions you have. Tell me your stories. We are happy to support you, but know that the In Home Play Therapy program might be a huge help to you as well. Thanks so much. I’ll talk to you again soon. Bye.

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