Children develop anxiety disorders


Rita Price

The Columbus Dispatch

Sunday October 21, 2012 8:04 AM

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Eric Albrecht | DISPATCH

Mia Stephany, 13, of Westerville, works with a psychologist to tame her anxiety disorder. “You have to talk back to OCD,” she says, “but your family can’t do it for you.”

Fear and anxiety — the forces behind untold numbers of sleep-deprived nights and before-school
stomachaches — pop up occasionally along the journey through childhood and adolescence.

But for some children, the worry won’t stop. It grows into an anxiety disorder that can wreak
havoc on their home, school and social lives.

“Parents hear about autism, and they hear about ADHD a lot more. Anxiety disorders are the
things that are often overlooked, and they’re actually incredibly common,” said Amy Przeworski, a
psychologist and assistant professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

She and psychologist Rebecca Hazen, also an assistant professor at Case Western, will speak to
families, caregivers and professionals in Columbus on Oct. 29 during the annual Children’s Mental
Health Conference sponsored by Mental Health America of Franklin County. They want to help families
learn to distinguish between typical and problem worrying. Researchers say anxiety-spectrum
disorders affect about 1 in 8 children at some point in their lives, making them the most-prevalent
mental-health disorder in children and teens.

Generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety, separation anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder,
panic attacks and phobias can be present in varying degrees of severity.

“Sometimes, people don’t come in for treatment until it’s really causing problems,” Hazen said. “
When anxiety is starting to interfere with daily activities, or cause a lot of daily stress for
kids, that’s a red flag that they might need some help.”

Carrie Stephany and her 13-year-old daughter, Mia, say the signs of Mia’s obsessive-compulsive
disorder were becoming clear by the time she turned 6. For her birthday party that year, Mia
insisted on a menu of plain corn muffins and sugar-free Italian ice. She couldn’t have cake because
the thought of eating a sugary treat, even in moderation, worried her sick. “I just thought, ‘
Sugar, bad,’  ” Mia said. “Then I became afraid of the sun. I thought I’d get skin cancer.”

Obsessive worry about germs, headaches and throwing up began to plague Mia, too. She couldn’t
wash her hands enough, and her family unwittingly made matters worse by trying to reassure her.

Tending the compulsions and paying them lots of attention usually just makes them grow big — it’s
kind of like watering a thirsty plant, Stephany said.

Mia’s psychologist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital’s Child Development Center helped the
Westerville family settle on the best treatment. Mia said books, too, have made it easier to see
her obsessive-compulsive disorder as a third party she needs to ignore.

One story portrayed OCD as “OC flea,” a pesky creature that overtook animals and made them think
they had to do certain things.

“You have to talk back to OCD,” Mia said. “But your family can’t do it for you. They can be your
cheerleader on the sidelines.”

Mia has great grades, is active in extracurricular activities and has helped other children who
struggle with anxiety disorders.

Przeworski said the exact cause of an anxiety disorder might not be known, but both genetic
predisposition and experiences can be factors.

“These days, there’s so much pressure on kids to succeed,” Przeworski said. “That’s only going
to lead to an increase in anxiety diagnoses.”