How Much Do Kids Worry About Stuff? Survey Gives Answers

WEDNESDAY, April 5, 2023 (HealthDay News) -- Life isn’t all fun and games for kids. They do a fair amount of worrying, too.

In fact, according to a survey of kids ages 9 to 13, a striking number, 86%, say they worry. More than one-third worry at least once a week.

School and friendships are key concerns. And as they get older, worries increase.

“One of the things that we really saw rising to the surface during the pandemic was this overall increase in kids' difficulties with mental health -- and that's both depression and also anxiety and worry,” said Meghan Walls, a pediatric psychologist at Nemours Children’s Health in Delaware. “Really what we were curious about is what does it look like now? What does it look like today in this landscape?”

To better understand kids' concerns, Nemours surveyed 504 youngsters.

The oldest respondents -- age 13 -- were more likely than their younger counterparts to say they thought they would never stop worrying. Nearly half felt that way.

About 1 in 3 kids felt they worry more than most children their age.

About 50% of girls said they worry about friendships, compared to 32% of boys. About 35% of kids were worried about loved ones' health.

Girls were more likely than boys to worry about their looks (39% versus 24%).

More than 6 in 10 said they worried about school. And more than half of respondents (55%) said they worried more than once a week about being bullied. More than 20% said bullying is a daily concern.

The kids were also worried about some of same issues that likely keep some adults up at night, including 21% who were concerned about money; 20% about violence in the world, and 19% about the environment.

About two-thirds said that when they worry, they don't know why they feel that way.

While the rate of worry might be concerning, kids also said they had ways to cope.

“What that tells me is that kids are relatively resilient but also relatively insightful that they can look and say, ‘Yes, I do worry and here's the thing I worry about, and here's what I'm going to do with it,'" Walls said.

About 97% of the young respondents said they take steps to make themselves feel better or to stop stewing.

Roughly half talk to someone. About half said they watch TV or play video games.

Among younger children, about 77% said they turn to their parents when they feel worried. About 51% of 12- and 13-year-olds said they do, too.

“If you think about what is the most important part of a study like this, as a psychologist I actually think one of the most important parts is that our younger kids, especially the 9-to-11 age range, actually turn to their parents first,” Walls said. “That is so great.”

Developmentally, it makes sense that the number who turn to their parents recedes some as kids reach their teens, Walls said.

When they are worrying, kids reported feeling unable to focus, sad or quiet. They said they also had stomachaches or headaches.

Overall, 96% said talking to someone makes them feel better. About 93% said doing something creative gives them a boost.

The fact that many kids turn to screens when they're worried could offer an opportunity to direct them to apps or information that may help them cope, Walls said.

Of course, there's a difference between ordinary worry and an anxiety disorder that may require more specialized help.

While worry served an evolutionary purpose -- making a person’s ancestors more likely to avoid eating a poisonous berry that they didn’t recognize, for example -- excessive worry can be a sign of anxiety, said David Friedlander, psychologist at Child Mind Institute’s Mood Disorders Center in New York City.

“It's programmed into us that we were supposed to worry sometimes. Worry itself isn't even a mental health problem,” said Friedlander, who was not involved in the survey. “When you worry too much to the point that it is negatively impacting your life in a variety of settings” is when it’s a bigger concern.

One sign that there may be a bigger issue is worry that goes beyond what seems appropriate for a particular situation, Friedlander said. A string of worries about unrelated things or a worry that occurs more often than not are other warning signs.

The influential U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recently recommended that kids 8 and up should be screened for anxiety. Kids aged 12 and up should also be screened for depression, the task force advised.

If a child has an actual anxiety disorder, Friedlander noted, the worry may accompany other symptoms, such as difficulty concentrating or sleeping, or physical symptoms such as muscle tension.

That can be a sign that's it time to seek a pediatrician's advice.

Friedlander noted that the study offers advice to parents if their child is worrying. It suggests asking kids what's on their minds, listening with patience, validating their concerns and helping them think about how to handle the issue.

“A very natural response for a parent, when your kid is in distress, is to try to fix whatever's causing them distress,” Friedlander said.

That urge is a desire to relieve your son's or daughter's distress as well as any you may feel because of your child's worry, he said.

“But what kids and really anybody often needs when they have a problem is first to be heard. Before you jump to fixing it, 'tell me, I understand why that bothers you. That must be really hard,'" Friedlander said. “And doing that step first is hugely important in terms of helping them cope with the emotion. And once you accomplish that, then you can move on to problem-solving."

The survey was conducted Jan. 12-24 by the Harris Poll. The children who took part all had their parents' permission.

More information

The U.S. National Institute of Mental Health has more on children and mental health.

SOURCES: Meghan Walls, PsyD, pediatric psychologist, Nemours Children’s Health, Wilmington, Del.; David Friedlander, PsyD, psychologist, Child Mind Institute Mood Disorders Center, New York City; Nemours KidsHealth survey, April 5, 2023

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