One in five children will be diagnosed with anxiety by the time they reach adulthood, clinical psychologist Joanne Wolfe told 60 Milton parents and teachers last Wednesday.
The statistics were part of Wolfe’s talk, “Parenting the Anxious Child,” a presentation and Q&A session, during which she addressed various forms of anxiety and how parents can help their children decrease its harmful effects.
“With anxiety we’re in something of a good news, bad news, situation,” Wolfe said, citing its prevalence as the bad news. “The good news is it’s very treatable.”
Milton Town School District held the event as a component of its “Creating Trauma Informed Classrooms” class. The three-credit graduate course was offered to district teachers and support staff in Milton through Southern New Hampshire University, and it was funded through professional development money allocated in the faculty contract. Thirty-two faculty members are enrolled.
This year, parents and community members were invited to attend Wolfe’s talk and the upcoming “Paper Tigers” film screening as part of MTSD’s community outreach.
Anxiety, according to Wolfe, is a normal reaction to stress that can alert the body to danger. The response is generated in a small, almond-shaped portion of the brain called the amygdala. In prehistoric times, anxiety helped humans remain vigilant and safe when predators were around.
“[Today] there are infinitely fewer dangers, but the amygdala hasn’t caught up with the times,” she said.
While some level of anxiety is natural and important, in large doses, it can impair people’s functionality and reasoning, she added.
“Anxiety is confusing,” Wolfe said. “It’s vexing and tireless.”
With this, she shared her anxiety tool kit with parents to help children soothe their worried minds. At the top of the list was compassion: Parents should be sympathetic to their children, themselves and their partners, Wolfe said.
However, the speaker cautioned parents against avoiding the feared stimuli.
“In the short run, anxiety works,” Wolfe said. “If we let the kid back away from what’s scaring them they’ll calm down.”
But, she explained, the strategy only succeeds until the fear comes back again. Rather than affording kids a learning opportunity, avoidance limits the tasks children feel capable of handling.
Instead, parents can work with their children to overcome anxiety through breathing techniques, introspection and by modeling good coping mechanisms themselves.
The key to tackling anxiety, Wolfe said, is striking the metaphorical iron while it’s cold.
“The time to fireproof your house is not when it’s in flames,” she explained.
Many parents attempt soothing words and affirmation while their child is experiencing acute anxiety, but a better time to discuss solutions is when the anxiety trigger is safely distant, the psychologist said.
She provided an example of a child who fears the school bus. Rather than discuss it just before the child boards the bus, parents might start the conversation on a Saturday afternoon when the ordeal is a few days out.
Her theory: It’s easier to help a child with strong anxiety in calm moments.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, general anxiety disorders can onset at any point in life but most commonly begin in childhood and middle school years. About 7 million American adults are diagnosed with anxiety disorders each year, and women are twice as likely to be affected than men, the ADAA website says.
During the Q&A session, parents brimmed with inquiries about handling sports anxiety, classroom anxiety and other stressors. One teacher said she noticed anxiety had markedly increased among students in recent times and asked what the cause might be. While Wolfe couldn’t answer with certainty, she cited social media and “scary stuff in the news” as possible contributing factors.
Lynne Manley, MTSD director of curriculum, instruction and information technology, said trauma-informed education is an important topic with today’s social fabric and noted a number of the district’s students face the associated challenges.
“Our hope is to be able to make sure that all of our educators have a baseline knowledge of what it means to be trauma-informed, and how to have a classroom that … is helpful for students who may have suffered some trauma in their lives,” she said.