Anxiety disorders now are the most prevalent psychological condition in children and adults in the United States. It is a startling statistic. Many of those who suffer from severe anxiety have more resources and safeguards than any other generation, but it is particularly worrisome for our children who appear to be struggling to cope with the demands and privileges of our time. By age 18, one in four children will have met criteria for an anxiety disorder. The questions remain: What are the factors that are associated with this increase? Does it coincide with changes in our generation?
For parents, the first question is whether or not they have something to do with this. Despite what may be perceived, children are safer in many ways than ever before. Since 1907, the child mortality rate has dropped almost fiftyfold. In the last 40 years, the rates of violent crime against children have decreased by more than 60 percent. Statistics from the last 15 years indicate that of all the children who go missing every year, almost 99 percent are found within hours or days. (Roughly four out of five kidnappings are perpetrated by family members.) Since 1987, the rates of serious injury and death of children who were bicycling or walking have been cut in half.
Meanwhile, motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death for individuals aged 15-20. Between 2001 and 2007, increased texting volumes accounted for 16,000 road fatalities. Studies indicate that cell phone usage while driving may be as dangerous as drunk driving — and more than 90 percent of the U.S. population has cell phones today. Over the last 30 years, suicide has declined or remained the same in all age groups except the 5-24 age group, which climbed to higher levels than any other period since 1900. Youth spend an average of six hours per day exposed to media. We are sleeping 20 percent less than a hundred years ago. The percentage of pediatric obesity has more than tripled in the last four decades, and children born in 2000 are on the verge of becoming the first generation since the Civil War to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents. Type II diabetes increased tenfold from 1982 to 1994. Attendance to religious services has dropped significantly over the past 40 years, and divorce rates have skyrocketed since 1960.
Why is all this important? Research has shown that each of these factors contributes to a person’s level of anxiety. There is little doubt that we have become a nation of worriers, and our children appear to have caught the worry bug.
Good news: The science that has illuminated potential causes of anxiety also has identified clear remedies. Through research, five particular areas have emerged as the main culprits of anxiety. Even mild improvement in each of the following categories can make a difference.
Evidence has indicated that individuals who have diets higher in non-processed foods also have less anxiety and mood issues. Multiple studies have shown that exercise alone can decrease depressive symptoms, and involvement in athletics can decrease substance abuse problems and improve academic performance.
A majority of research shows that those engaged in faith-related practices have less anxiety, better adjustment, and decreased negative mood. Studies also show better physical outcomes, including decreased hypertension and quicker recovery from illness.
Improving communication patterns in the household decreases stress and anxiety, and creates better compliance in children. Less conflict between divorced parents is associated with better outcomes for youth.
Sleep is critical for repairing tissue and consolidating information, especially in children. An appropriate amount of sleep increases attention, memory, frustration tolerance, and mood regulation. (Most sleep issues in children can be resolved without the aid of medication.)
Certain television programs or learning videos can encourage prosocial behavior, which is defined as voluntary actions intended to help or benefit others. However, research proves that limiting a youth’s screen/mobile time per day can lead to a longer attention span, better mood, and better decision-making. Evidence also suggests that regular interaction with other young children increases vocabulary faster than educational videos.
Jim Schroeder is a pediatric psychologist at St. Mary’s Center for Children and a father of five. For further information on pediatric anxiety, check out Schroeder’s five additional articles at www.stmarys.org/articles.
The Brain Game
More and more children and adults are being diagnosed with anxiety disorders and ADHD, often leading to academic failure and low self-esteem. Searching for a solution to the growing problem, doctors and researchers determined that working memory is key to attention and learning; and it can be improved by training, using the right tools and protocol. The result is a specially-designed software program using an already popular pastime as a tool to exercise the brain and strengthen cognitive skills.
Used worldwide, Cogmed Working Memory Training takes the traditional video game concept and turns it into an evidence-based program to help children, adolescents, and adults improve working memory. By training the working memory, the program has proven to enhance a person’s ability to solve problems, resist distractions, plan activities, complete tasks, adapt more easily to situations, and control impulses. Recent research published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology found that working memory is even more important to academic success than IQ.
Midwest Behavioral Health, a comprehensive, multidisciplinary behavioral health care practice, offers Cogmed Working Memory Training for anyone wishing to improve their working memory. The program is individualized and available to all ages.
Midwest Behavioral Health offers a specially-trained coach for continued support and feedback throughout the Cogmed training.