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  • Nearly 10 percent of children in the U.S. will get a diagnosis of anxiety.
  • Now experts say children as young as 8 should get screened for anxiety.
  • Early detection of this condition can help children get treatment before symptoms become severe.

As mental health issues continue to rise in all age groups, experts are recommending that all children should be screened for anxiety.

Anxiety is incredibly common and is diagnosed in 9.4 percent of all US children, or about 5.8 million children between ages 3 and 17.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force is expected to make a finalized recommendation that all children ages 8 to 18 years old should be screened for anxiety. The reason is that early intervention can prevent future anxiety disorders.

This is the first recommendation urging the use of screening tools for children who may have anxiety and depression.

This recommendation advises screening for anxiety in children regardless of if a clinician notices any signs or symptoms. This may help catch cases of anxiety before a child develops serious symptoms.

Having the ability to screen patients at an early age allows providers and families to intervene as soon as possible. Reports show that those who develop anxiety at a young age are at an increased risk for substance misuse, adult anxiety, and depression.

Dr. Yasas Tanguturi, child and adolescent psychiatrist and assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at the Monroe Carell Jr. Hospital at Vanderbilt, agrees that early detection of anxiety is important for two reasons.

“The age of onset of these disorders is commonly in the elementary school age, making them the earliest psychiatric disorder to manifest during the lifespan. While fears and worries can be developmentally appropriate in this age group, it is important to identify when they become severe enough to impair day-to-day functioning,” Tanguturi tells Healthline.

He also explained that anxiety tends to be co-mingled with other conditions, creating more complex illnesses.

“Anxiety disorders are also highly comorbid- meaning those who have anxiety disorders have a higher risk for other psychiatric illness- both other anxiety disorders, but also things like mood disorders (depression specifically) as they enter adolescence.”

Although children of all ages can develop anxiety, this recommendation is for children 8 years and older as there is insufficient evidence for those under this age.

“Essentially, that means we don’t know enough about younger children for the USPSTF to make an evidence-supported recommendation, but that doesn’t mean that younger children don’t also experience anxiety and need services at times,” says Raquel Halfond, PhD, Senior Director of Evidence Based Practice and Health Equity at the American Psychological Association.

When children present to their primary doctor’s office, parents and patients are asked questions to understand underlying conditions and exposures. This is already done for things like lead exposure, age-appropriate milestones, and safety within the home.

“This screening could be done during regular check-ups with a pediatrician or other opportunities,” said Halfond.

This screening would be an additional method of understanding and picking up anxiety in younger patients before they show the obvious or overt symptoms of anxiety and depression.

By focusing on these symptoms, clinicians will be able to continue to follow these trends or even intervene to provide resources and support to help prevent developing anxiety. The screening can be a conversation-starting point to express emotions before it is too late.

Halfond believes this “will be important that children who screen positive are connected with care to receive a further assessment to confirm the diagnosis and then, once confirmed, that they receive evidence-based treatments.”

It is common for children to have some small degree of anxiety, and some experts even say that it can be beneficial as it forms a way of keeping one safe and aware of their surroundings.

However, outside of these momentary bouts of anxiety, persistent symptoms can begin to alter and affect a child’s everyday life. If strong and persistent enough, these can develop into complications later in life.

If your child has any of the following symptoms, they may be experiencing the early features of anxiety, according to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry:

  • Refusing to go to school
  • Frequent stomachaches and other physical complaints
  • Panic or tantrums at times of separation from parents
  • Low self-esteem and lack of self-confidence
  • Many worries about things before they happen
  • Avoidance of social situations

Experts point out that the pandemic has also exacerbated stressful situations for children.

“While it does not seem like this is all related to the pandemic, the pandemic has certainly accelerated things and contributed to the full-blown crisis in mental health for children and adolescents,” said Tanguturi.

Although this is not a formal recommendation as of yet, the task force currently has a draft of its guidelines which is open to public comment, and will likely finalize the recommendation by the end of this year.

Rajiv Bahl, MD, MBA, MS, is an emergency medicine physician, board member of the Florida College of Emergency Physicians, and health writer. You can find him at RajivBahlMD.com.