Is paediatric anxiety becoming an epidemic?

Dr Andrew Leech, GP (FRACGP, MBBS, BSc, DCH)

Anxiety disorders are one of the most prevalent types of clinical diagnoses made in childhood and adolescence. Prevalence sits at around 6.9%, based on the Young Minds Matter survey, one of the largest performed to date. Interestingly, prevalence has not changed drastically since the last survey in 1998.

Parents are often concerned about why their child might have developed an anxiety disorder. Research demonstrates some common trends.

  • The childhood attachment early on paints a picture of what a child’s life might become. Maternal warmth and sensitivity were directly associated with less anxious behaviours and emotions. Negative experiences, such as childhood trauma, are strongly linked to paediatric anxiety disorders. (Degnan, 2010)

  • Over attachment can be an issue as well. Consider the emerging term of ‘over-parenting’. There is a global sense that parents have become hyper-vigilant in the care of their children to protect against an ever-increasing fear of danger (abductions, sex offences, injuries). This has the disadvantage of limiting opportunities to explore, develop creativity and to take risks. These early risks build resilience and lessen stress.

  • Technology is obviously a risk factor but ironically is also used in the treatment of anxiety disorders (mindfulness apps, online CBT). One example is the rise of social media in bed and that children who become emotionally invested in the content developed poorer sleep habits and heightened anxiety through the day. (Woods)

One thing that remains consistent is that parents do need support in what appears to be a faster paced world. They need guidance on the appropriate steps to take to both minimise risk and reduce negative outcomes. Thankfully as GP’s we are in the forefront of that support network and can have a big impact on the trajectory of a child’s life.