What to look for in your child, and how you can help.
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.
In last week’s post,  Rachel V. F. Rohaidy, M.D., a Baptist Health psychiatrist who specializes in the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of mental, addictive and emotional disorders, spoke of the back-to-school stressors affecting adolescents, and how their still-developing brains can be affected by drugs and alcohol they may turn to in order to ease their anxiety and fit in at school.
So how do you know if your child is struggling with anxiety issues? What signs should you be looking for? More importantly, what can you do to help?
“You have to be really involved in your child’s life and be aware of what they’re going through,” Dr. Rohaidy says. “Adolescents don’t have the emotional vocabulary to express what they’re feeling or why they’re feeling that way. As a result, you can get a lot of somatic symptoms that bubble up – headaches are common, as are gastrointestinal symptoms such as stomach cramps, nausea or diarrhea.”
Other things to watch for are abrupt changes in behavior; isolating; anger outbursts; sadness or crying, and a sudden drop in grades.
“If you see that they’re not able to leave their room or get dressed for school in the morning, or that they’re not taking care of themselves, or they’re not able to complete school projects or make friends, these are all red flags,” Dr. Rohaidy says. “When their anxiety is so bad that they’re not functioning at all, that’s when you should seek professional help from a psychiatrist or therapist.”
Medication can and does help, according to Dr. Rohaidy, but it should be part of a holistic approach that includes exercise, changes in diet, and talk therapy.
“We start with an anti-depressant such as Celexa, Lexapro, Prozac, or Zoloft because a lot of the symptoms and neurons with depression and anxiety overlap,” she says. “But there’s no magic pill – I push them to find healthy ways to relieve their stress.”
It may seem “old school” but Dr. Rohaidy suggests a family dinner night at least once a week (“Put the phones away!”) which can foster relaxed conversations around the table. Also, see what your teen is into by watching TV with them and asking questions about it afterwards.
“Give them space when they need it, though,” Dr. Rohaidy cautions.
Modeling healthy ways of reducing stress in your life is especially helpful. Instead of de-stressing after work with a glass or two (or more) of wine, turn to other healthier activities that can reduce stress – hobbies, exercise, yoga, or whatever helps you relax. Children notice, even if they won’t admit it.
Better still, find activities that you can do as a family, particularly outdoor activities such as going to the beach, riding bikes, or going for a walk.
“Especially rewarding are those activities that provide opportunities to give back to your community,” Dr. Rohaidy says. “Participating in beach or park clean-ups, or helping feed residents at homeless shelters – these can help bring the family together, open lines of communication, and build trust.”
Most important of all, says Dr. Rohaidy, is to take charge.
“Don’t be complacent,” she advises. “Don’t assume. Rely on your intuition. Be proactive. If you see something, bring it up. Reach out to them and have a conversation.”
If your child needs help dealing with anxiety or addiction issues, there are lots of community resources available. Ask your pediatrician or primary care provider for help, or go online and look for community resources for teens. In Miami-Dade there are several resources for teens in distress – Teen Link Line; Teen Talk Hotline, and 211 Help Line.
In the end, your goal as a parent is to equip your child with the emotional skills and knowledge they’ll need once they leave the nest. That journey isn’t always easy, and there are lots of obstacles and pitfalls along the way. Being vigilant and involved can help keep your child on track and out of trouble through those turbulent adolescent years.