Teens & Anxiety by Sharon O’Donnell
Sometimes the things your children are going through take over your own life; it’s what consumes your thoughts and fills your days. Seeing your child suffer from anxiety is one such thing that does this. Anxiety is an awful, insidious thing that hits hard when it hits. Usually, you don’t see it coming and then — bam! It hits with a full force.
My soon-to-be 17-year-old son has been battling anxiety since November when he started an ADD medication to help him focus better after years of time management issues that plagued him. He did well in school, but it was a constant struggle with his going back to finish tests, late nights of homework, working one-on-one with him a lot (myself, his dad, and tutors), getting him out the door in the mornings (slow as molasses), etc. He’d had speech difficulties at the age of 3 that required therapy that continued into elementary school, and once that was cleared up, there were reading and reading comprehension problems. He could read text well and even remember details but would sometimes miss the main idea totally. In early middle school, I’d read the same books he would read and quiz him on it to make sure he didn’t miss things. In late middle school, I stepped back to see if he could do it on his own — sometimes he could, other times he struggled.
Testing showed he had processing difficulties which led to his slower work speed, but medication was suggested only if our son felt he absolutely needed it or we felt he needed it. When it was put that way, we all decided to try to make do without it. He still made honor roll at school and excelled at sports, but it was a challenge for him to juggle everything and to succeed at the level he wanted to do without lots of stress on him and on my husband and me. He was a great kid, but he was high maintenance. He often forgot items needed for school or even his baseball equipment before baseball games; it was a thin line for us as parents to decide whether to help him out when he did this or if we would be an ‘enabler’ or a helicopter parent. We wanted him to succeed but we also wanted him to be independent.
In middle school he also had a problem with indigestion and would sometimes have to leave a restaurant before we even ordered because he felt sick. I took him to the doctor about this, and he said this seemed to be some anxiety, but it was mild at the time. This totally stopped by the end of middle school.
He continued to do well in high school with fewer struggles but still some (there was one particular world history course that was one of those where you study the study guide and then half the stuff on it wasn’t on the study guide). Then last fall as he struggled to study for the SAT, keep up with his Honors courses, play on the basketball team, etc., he came to us and said he couldn’t focus in class and it was bothering him. He wanted to look into taking an ADD med. So I took him to a psychiatrist who, after having us fill out some questionnaires and talking to us for an hour or so, he officially diagnosed him with ADD-inattentive type (not hyperactive) and prescribed an ADD medication. Long story short — he did great for three days, making high A’s on tests instead of his usual high B’s. Then he crashed. And I mean crashed. He was depressed and started having Obsessive Compulsive thoughts that repeated in his head so that he couldn’t focus on anything else. The psychiatrist was out of town, and I ended up taking him to our trusted long-time pediatrician. We took him off the ADD med and started him on an anti-anxiety medication, which took a week or two to officially kick in. Suffice it to say, that those two weeks were the toughest two weeks of my ever being a parent. Our son had also had strep throat at the same time, and we found out that that could have had something to do with it too.
Then through the rest of November and December and in to January, he seemed fine, but he was still on the anti-anxiety med. In mid January, he came to us and said he was having trouble focusing again and wanted to go back on an ADD med — but a different one this time at a lower dose. We talked with the doctor, and our son started the ADD drug soon afterward. He did great with taking both the meds from Jan-mid April. Then the anxiety and thoughts of ‘what is the purpose of life?’ started coming back to him, which believe me – is the scariest thing a parent can hear their children say. We tried counseling for him again, and this time, the doctor we went to seemed to connect with our son more than the others we’d tried. We are going to go to another psychiatrist next week to discuss his medications and the possibility of changing or stopping one or both. Our son’s psychologist doubts that there ever was an ADD problem but that it had all been anxiety-driven, even when he was younger.
Our son is better now, but it is still a delicate situation. There are certain triggers that can make the anxiety worse, only we don’t know what those triggers are until it’s already happened.
What has really concerned me is the number of other parents of teens who have come to us when they find about our son and tell us about similar struggles their children have had. It concerns me that our son’s psychologist has said how the number of teens with anxiety he has seen has increased tremendously in the past few years. There is so much stress these days. Yes, I know teens have always had stress, but not like they do now. It is SO MUCH harder to get into college these days with AP classes and other expectations of colleges like community service and extracurricular activities. The ‘best’ students are a lot more accomplished than the ‘best’ students of my generation; heck, I didn’t know what an SAT prep course was, but now some students start prepping for the SAT in middle school. All this makes everything more competitive. There’s also terrorism and nuclear melt-downs in the news, and for people prone to anxiety, that is not good. You want your kids to be informed, but you don’t want them to worry.
I’m really concerned about this generation of teens and the frequency of anxiety problems. What do we do about it? I’m not sure, but I will definitely be thinking about it. I think one problem is so many of them are sleep-deprived. I’ve heard parents at church many times say that their teen stayed at home to sleep in because they really needed it. Sometimes they need a chance to breathe, to catch their breath, to not always have something on their schedule. Our son has taken the SAT before and did okay on it — not great — but okay. He was scheduled to take it again today, but with his anxiety this past week, he didn’t feel comfortable taking it today. I looked at the SAT study guide on the kitchen table, and I thought about how the next time he would be able to take it wouldn’t be until October – which will be his senior year. He’d be cutting it close with college applications if he waited until then; taking the test today would probably be better — ideally. But life is not an ideal situation. Despite the studying and the careful planning, our son didn’t feel he could take the SAT today in the frame of mind he’s been in lately, didn’t think he could focus or that the OCD thoughts might come back during the testing. We knew we needed to listen to our child.
And so as my first step in helping him to catch his breathe, my son is not taking the SAT today. His health and his smile are way more important to me than any SAT score could ever be.