NEWS

Experts Recommend Screening Kids Ages 8 to 18 for Anxiety

Kid with anxiety

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Key Takeaways

  • A task force of medical experts recommends screening kids ages 8 to 18 years old for anxiety.
  • More than 4 million kids have been diagnosed with anxiety.
  • Kids typically will not say they are struggling with anxiety. Instead, it can manifest in physical symptoms or discomfort.

Mental health struggles continue to intensify among children. More than 2 million kids ages 3 to 17 have been diagnosed with depression. More than 5 million kids have been diagnosed with one of the most common mental health disorders in childhood, anxiety.

In light of the climbing numbers, a task force of medical experts says it’s important for kids ages 8 to 18 to be screened for anxiety.

“We know a lot has happened over the past two years with the pandemic, with students being homeschooled. They’re being taken out of their social environment," says Felice Martin, MS, NCC, LPC, NeuroCoach and NeuroLeader, Behavioral Health Associates of Georgia, LLC. "[Now] we have war, [and] there are a lot of things going on that could create anxiety among our children."

Dealing with anxiety has implications for kids’ physical and mental health, both now and in the future. It’s important for parents to be aware of signs of anxiety in their kids, to identify kids’ struggles early, and to provide resources and treatment that support good mental health.

Why the Recommendations Matter

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) issued a draft of guidelines for anxiety screenings in adolescents starting at age 8. The USPSTF is a panel of 16 nationally recognized experts in the medical field. The volunteers are selected by a government agency to make recommendations about care and prevention.

Their guidelines mark the first time an anxiety screening has been recommended. The Task Force pulled research and findings from mental health organizations to create the proposal. In addition to anxiety, their findings address other youth mental health problems, including a recommendation to screen for major depressive disorder in kids ages 12 to 18 years old. The guidelines are not official but have been released to give an opportunity for feedback.

Current events, parental expectations, schoolwork, and social pressures are just some of the factors that can lead to anxiety in kids. Early identification allows them to begin creating a path toward treatment. 

Research shows that almost 50% of kids do not get the mental health help treatment that they need. It’s imperative that parents are aware of the signs of anxiety in their kids and know how to help them.

To assess a child’s risk of anxiety, there are several surveys and questionnaires that a child can complete during a doctor’s office visit. While annual checkups are an ideal time, the tools can be used whenever an assessment is needed.

“The earlier the better,” Martin says. “This would give the child the opportunity to learn healthy coping skills, practice emotional regulation, be able to talk about how they’re feeling, [and] what they’re experiencing. I think it would also build communication with the caregiver and the child."

When signs of anxiety in kids are missed, it can have a detrimental impact on as an adolescent grows into adulthood. Research shows that children with high levels of anxiety have an increased risk of psychosis. “Anxiety disorders in childhood and adolescence are associated with an increased likelihood of a future anxiety disorder or depression," according to the guidelines. Experts say undiagnosed anxiety in kids can also lead to substance abuse, physical aggression, anger, and sleeping disorders.

Signs of Anxiety and Treatment

Anxiety disorder often “involves a persistent feeling of anxiety or dread, which can interfere with daily life,” according to the National Institute of Mental Health. When kids are dealing with difficult emotions and feelings, they can have a hard time putting those things into words. Instead of saying that they’re dealing with anxiety, they’ll talk about the symptoms they’re experiencing.

Felice Martin, LPC

Typically, in children, anxiety manifests somatically.

— Felice Martin, LPC

“Typically, in children, anxiety manifests somatically. So basically, it manifests in stomach problems, sleeping too much, or not even being able to sleep,” notes Martin. “When they go to school they’re not going to be as attentive. Their grades may decline."

She also notes that when children pick at their skin, bite their fingernails, or pull their hair, these are additional signs of anxiety.

Assessing Anxiety

There are several surveys and questionnaires that a child can complete during a doctor’s office visit to assess a child’s risk of anxiety. While annual checkups are an ideal time, the tools can be used whenever an assessment is needed.

“The earlier the better,” Martin says. “This would give the child the opportunity to learn healthy coping skills, practice emotional regulation, be able to talk about how they’re feeling, [and] what they’re experiencing. I think it would also build communication with the caregiver and the child."

When signs of anxiety in kids are missed, it can have a detrimental impact as they grow into adulthood. Research shows that children with high levels of anxiety have an increased risk of psychosis. “Anxiety disorders in childhood and adolescence are associated with an increased likelihood of a future anxiety disorder or depression," according to the guidelines. Experts say undiagnosed anxiety in kids can also lead to substance abuse, physical aggression, anger, and sleeping disorders.

When parents see these symptoms or an assessment indicates there’s an issue with anxiety, getting help is key. Support groups, therapy with a trained professional, or medication, when appropriate, can be a part of a treatment plan.

As a parent, exploring what causes your child anxiety can be beneficial. Getting to the source may lead to a positive change in eating patterns, sleeping patterns, and reducing stress loads in your child’s life. Martin emphasizes that being in tune with your child’s needs from a young age is critical—anxiety can strike at any time, so you'll want to be aware.

“I encourage parents to go ahead and get the support and assistance early, because if you get it early, you address issues related to education, physical health, wellness,” Martin concludes. 

What This Means For You

Anxiety can be a lot for an adult to handle. For a child, who can’t always articulate what they are thinking or feeling, it can be overwhelming. As a parent, stay plugged in to your child’s thoughts and feelings; be aware of behavioral and mood changes; and ask the hard questions. Don’t be afraid or ashamed to reach out for help. A little intervention now can make a world of difference later.

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5 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. Screening for anxiety in children and adolescents.

  3. Whitney DG, Peterson MD. US national and state-level prevalence of mental health disorders and disparities of mental health care use in children. JAMA Pediatr. 2019;173(4):389. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2018.5399

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  5. National Institute of Mental Health. Anxiety disorders.