Parents of both children with special needs and general education students packed into the cafeteria of the George Inness Annex last Wednesday night for Montclair SEPAC’s educational discussion on the topic of Kids Anxiety. After opening remarks from SEPAC co-president Melissa Schaffer and Director of Pupil Services Linda Mithaug, the five panelists each took five minutes to present their area of expertise.
Here are some highlights:
Dr. Kevin Fried, a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst, discussed when everyday anxiety becomes a problem for kids and how parents can help them. He spoke of the ‘tug’ parents feel between wanting to step in and take the anxiety away versus allowing their child to move through the experience on their own. It’s a balancing act and the goal is not to eliminate anxiety, but to manage it. He also discussed how a parent’s own anxiety can impact their child’s anxiety level.
Dr. Peter Della Bella, a Clinical Assistant Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the NYU School of Medicine who also sees patients in his private practice, explained the physiologic sources of anxiety, how it is diagnosed and also how it is treated. The various anxiety diagnoses include: separation anxiety disorder, selective mutism, social anxiety disorder, phobias, panic disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. He noted that fifteen to twenty percent of kids (or one in five) will meet the criteria for one of these disorders. Kids also experience anxiety in clusters, so parents may see anxious behaviors in different domains. As for treatment, parents should focus on what will create lasting value. Although there are three different types of medications that can relieve a child who is suffering, the best treatment will be a mix of learning coping skills and detaching anxiety from certain triggers.
Dr. David Steinke, who has worked at the high school for the past nine years, discussed the many triggers he sees among students including: getting into college, their own performance, parental pressure, romantic relationships, peer relationships, financial pressures at home and even learning itself. He also gave examples of how to identify when ‘normal anxiety’ has turned into a problem. When your child can’t remember anything they studied from the night before, when a good student suddenly stops participating and turning in work and changes in sleeping patterns should all be taken seriously. In younger children, you might see a child who can’t handle any kind of change or often complains about stomach pain and not feeling well. If parents suspect their child might be suffering from anxiety, they can reach out to school counselors, guidance counselors and even private therapists. Parents can also request modifications to their child’s school program or IEP.
Dr. Ilyse Dobrow DiMarco, Assistant Director of the Rutgers Anxiety Disorders Clinic and private therapist, talked about parents and anxiety, in their children and their own. She explained that parents who have anxious children often bear the brunt of the issue because other people might not see the problem. Many anxious children seek constant reassurance from their parents or don’t let their parents leave them alone (physically). She also discussed Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) which is a short-term therapy focused on finding coping strategies for specific issues.
Dr. Carie Spindel Bashoff, a clinical psychologist at the NYU Child Study Center, discussed the various therapeutic options available for children with anxiety including: CBT (which is considered the gold standard), Play Therapy and Family Therapy amongst others. She explained that the best treatment relies on three things: 1) what techniques/therapies have been proven to work, 2) the individual’s needs in terms of their issue, family demands and their culture and 3) the practitioner’s expertise.
After each panelist spoke, attendees broke into self-selected groups around each expert for a more intimate QA. Following this breakout, the panelists once again sat in the front of the room and answered questions from the audience. Audience members were invited to write down their questions on index cards and hand them in to Ms. Schaffer to read to the panel. In addition to specific questions from parents about their children, some general themes emerged. Dr. Della Bella cautioned parents about modifications made to their child’s school program. While you do want to help your child who is suffering in the near term, you do not want to handicap them forever. A child who is uncomfortable giving presentations, for example, should eventually tackle this fear. And Dr. Fried stressed the importance of getting an accurate diagnosis as anxiety can be the result of an underlying issue. The one topic that overshadowed all others during this discussion period was the prevalence of anxiety issues at the high school level. About one-third of the attendees were parents of high school students and they expressed great concern over this problem and asserted the need for teacher training in this area.
After the discussion, Barista Kids spoke to several parents (who wished to remain anonymous) about anxiety in our kids. These parents felt that the issue starts before high school and that it is pervasive in middle school as well. One father, who is also a teacher outside of the Montclair school district, noted that he is seeing more anxiety this year in particular because of the additional testing. He explained that the tests themselves are stressful on the kids and that the teachers are now especially anxious over their student’s performance, which is exacerbating the overall problem.