February 26, 2020 by John Fernandez
High Anxiety — Kids, School and Stress, Part 1: What’s Going on in Your Child’s Brain?
With the new school year comes plenty of stress and anxiety for both students and parents. Being aware of the stressors your children face – and recognizing when anxiety begins to interfere with their everyday lives – can go a long way in keeping them happy, healthy and ready to face the challenges ahead.
Rachel . F. Rohaidy, M.D., (pictured) a Baptist Health psychiatrist who specializes in the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of mental, addictive and emotional disorders, says anxiety is completely normal for people of all ages, especially adolescents.
“Nobody has ever died from anxiety,” Dr. Rohaidy says. “It’s part of the ‘fight or flight’ response that’s hardwired into our DNA.”
Adolescents, however, experience and respond to anxiety differently than adults – partly because their brains are still developing but also because they don’t have the emotional vocabulary to express what they’re feeling or why they’re feeling that way.
While children of different ages may have different types of stressors in their lives, most middle-schoolers and high-schoolers tend to have the same general anxieties about starting a new school year:
• Social Life – Will I be liked and accepted, and be able to make friends?
• Peer Pressure – Will I have to do things I’m uncomfortable with in order to fit in?
• Personal Safety – Will I be bullied or have to face an active shooter situation?
How they handle these anxieties can make all the difference as they navigate through the turbulent emotional waters of middle school and especially high school, according to Dr. Rohaidy. Are they dealing with their stress in healthy ways or is it causing them to withdraw, act out, or engage in self-destructive behaviors?
“If anxiety is preventing your child from leading a normal life then you should consider seeking out mental health counseling,” Dr. Rohaidy says.
Dr. Rohaidy sees a lot of teens who are struggling with substance abuse issues, even as early as middle school.
“These are kids who are feeling anxious, insecure or depressed and are self-medicating with alcohol or drugs,” she explains. “Eating disorders and cutting are also common at this age.”
Because the human brain is continuously developing until the age of 25 or so, introducing substances such as alcohol or cannabis into an adolescent brain affects its development by altering the way neurons grow and relate to each other.
“Alcohol and drugs directly affect executive function, including cognitive thought – the ability to retain information, make wise decisions, and plan things out,” Dr. Rohaidy says. “Teenagers whose brains aren’t fully developed yet and who use substances daily aren’t able to make good decisions. Their sense of right and wrong goes out the door and they’re far more likely to place themselves in some really dangerous situations.”
Read more in Part 2: What to look for in your child, and how you can help.