Health & Science

New guidelines: All children over age 8 should be screened for anxiety

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A panel of health care experts known as the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force has recommended that all children over the age of eight be screened for anxiety disorders. The recommendation comes after a spike in mental health issues among children and teens over the past several years.

The task force’s recommended guidelines will be passed on to health care providers in order to promote mental health screenings happening earlier for children. Screenings may consist of a survey or questionnaire administered to the child, most likely during their annual wellness check-up. Screener surveys that indicate a risk of developing anxiety do not constitute a diagnosis, but rather prompt health care providers to investigate further and determine if an anxiety disorder may be present.

Anxiety in children

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 7 percent of children between the ages of 3 and 17 are diagnosed with anxiety. A recent study found that there were significant increases in diagnosed anxiety and depression among children between 2016 and 2020. 

While some level of anxiety is normal and healthy, it can become disruptive to a child’s life when it’s more pronounced and persistent in their daily life. The following signs can indicate that your child is experiencing more anxiety than usual and may benefit from a mental health screening:

  • Eating too much or too little
  • Sleeping more or less than usual
  • Falling grades
  • Relationship changes
  • Irritability
  • Anger
  • Sensitivity to criticism
  • A loss of interest in activities
  • Physical symptoms, like headache or stomach aches
  • Problems separating from caregivers and resistance to going to school or sleeping alone

If a child’s screening prompts more intervention due to a higher risk of developing anxiety, a psychotherapist or counselor will most likely be recommended as a next step. Pediatricians can often refer parents to mental health providers, and there are also some low-cost and child-centered options for families seeking therapy.

Supporting a child with anxiety

If your child is determined to have an anxiety disorder, there’s no need to panic. Kids with anxiety can learn to manage their symptoms and minimize their daily distress from anxiety through therapy and plenty of healthy coping skills. To support a child living with an anxiety disorder, parents can prepare themselves with some reassuring and calming things to say to kids during their high-stress moments, such as, “Which calm-down tool should we try?” or “Let’s make a list of good things.” 

For older kids and teens who are struggling with anxiety, there are some more age-targeted approaches to supporting their mental health. You can start by equipping their phone or tablet with some mental health apps like Calm Harm or Wysa. You can also have them add mental health emergency numbers to their phone, like the NAMI Helpline, or the Crisis Text Line (741741).

Checking in regularly with your child can help you get ahead of any mental health challenges they may experience. Keep communication open with them about any persistent fears or worries they have, and if you notice that their stress level seems higher than usual, think about instituting a mental health day. There are lots of fun mental health activities for kids of all ages that can boost their mood on a tough day.

Mckenna Saady is a staff writer and digital content lead for ParentsTogether. Before working for nonprofits such as the Human Rights Campaign and United Way, Mckenna spent nearly a decade as a child care provider and Pre-K teacher. Originally from Richmond, VA, she now lives in Philadelphia and writes poetry, fiction, and children’s literature in her spare time.