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Kids and anxiety: Parents face a conundrum over whether to seek help


Differentiating between normal developmental fears and anxieties and behaviors that might be cause for concern can be difficult for parents. Deciding whether to seek professional help for their child is often a confusing, lengthy process.

A second-grader constantly seeks reassurance that she's going to be OK and cries if her parents are going to leave her with a baby sitter. Is this normal, or is something wrong? Do all kids get as intensely upset about taking a test or going off the routine? These are the questions parents can find themselves asking every day.

Anxiety is the most prevalent psychiatric illness among children and teens. As many as 1 in 4 children and adolescents are affected by an anxiety disorder at one or more times in their lives; disorders can strike children as young as 3 but typically gets diagnosed between ages 7 and 9, according to mental health experts.

Parents often sense something is wrong years before taking action. Some ignore it, hoping it's a passing phase or trying to get it under control on their own. Others bring it to the attention of teachers or pediatricians and are first told they are overreacting.

"I had thought there was something going on years and years and years before," said one Bergen County mom, whose daughter is now in therapy and who sought help when the girl was younger.

"I had brought it to the school's attention and I had said, 'Listen, she gets very upset easily. She has major anxiety.' They were all like, 'Oh she's fine, just a maturity thing, she'll grow out of it.' "

Her daughter didn't grow out of it. A couple of years later, a teacher agreed with the mother and suggested they get the girl some assistance. Now 9, she is getting help, but still struggles.

A professional assessment doesn't necessarily mean there is an issue that needs treatment. Often parents are worried about something that is not out of line with typical development, according to Dr. Matthew Goldfine, a Cresskill psychologist who specializes in treating children with anxiety.

But for children who have significant anxiety issues that are disrupting their lives, intervention is imperative. Years ago, many parents took a "they'll grow out of it" stance, but research has shown that isn't the case for kids with true anxiety disorders. Intervention is important.

"The more the child struggles with anxiety early, the more likely they develop more anxiety disorders over time," said Dr. Anne Marie Albano, director of the Columbia University Clinic for Anxiety and Related Disorders. By middle childhood and adolescence, anxiety disorders can lead to depression and substance abuse, she said.