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Denton ISD panel talks adolescent anxiety

Dozens of people spent their Wednesday night in the Denton ISD boardroom. One man said he actually drove two hours from Wichita Falls to be there. 

But no one was there to discuss board policies or go over test scores. Instead, they were there to talk about an issue that affects all of their children: anxiety disorders.

The Denton ISD Counseling and Social Work Department hosted the Fall 2017 Community Forum, a ongoing event held each semester where parents can meet with experts to talk about topics relevant to modern-day families. Previous topics have included suicide prevention, alcohol and drug use and the impact of social media.

According to data from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, roughly one in four kids ages of 13 to 18 will suffer from an anxiety disorder. David Goff, a local pediatrician, said he's seeing more and more kids come into his office with anxiety or depression.

"When I initially went into pediatrics, my thoughts were more of growth and development, childhood diseases, runny noses and ear infections," he said. "Now, probably 25 to 30 percent of my day is about mental health. The prevalence has gone up exponentially compared to when I started 20 years ago."

Amy Lawrence, Denton ISD's director of counseling services, said Wednesday's forum was the largest crowd she's seen since the program started three years ago.

"It makes me sad because it means so many people are struggling with this issue," she said. "But it also gives me hope because there are so many parents who want to help their child."

The panel comprised Goff and his wife, Karen Goff, also a pediatrician, psychologist Lisa Elliot and Guyer High School counselor Rebekah dePeo-Christner. The experts answered common questions they get from parents, which are included below:

What are major symptoms of anxiety or depression?

All the panelists agreed that symptoms could include sleep disturbance, irritability or social withdrawal. Some symptoms, though, might manifest in a different way.

"A lot of times, kids will come in with somatic complaints like abdominal pain or headaches," Karen Goff said. "Sometimes, kids won't come in and say, 'I'm anxious.' They'll come in with a headache. Once we start to evaluate them, we realize they're anxious."

What is normal anxiety and when does it become a concern?

Students get anxious about a lot of things: schoolwork, college applications, sports games, fine arts competitions and the future in general. Doctors say it's OK to worry, but if it starts affecting your health or friendships, there could be a problem.

"Severity is the key on everything," Elliott said. "Anxiety is considered a disorder not based on what kids worry about but how it impacts their daily functioning. If it's impacting a child's functioning and their overall well-being, then it's something serious to be looking at."

Are there actually higher levels of stress today or a greater inability to cope with stress?

The experts seemed to think it's a mix of both. 

Kids today have unique stressors like a higher level of competition for colleges, the need to be popular on social media and the prevalence of online bullying. There's also increasing apprehension about topics in the news.

"I have a 12-year-old and he asked me about ISIS the other day," dePeo-Christner said. "I thought, 'OK, well I guess we're going to have this discussion.' They have to worry about terrorism and things that we didn't necessarily have to worry about. There is that stress that the world is not safe."

Karen Goff also pointed out that some parents might be hindering their child's social development by being too involved in their activities.

"I think we, as a society, just coddle our kids," she said. "For our whole lives, we made sure they were always busy and had something going on. Our parents used to just open the door and say, 'Go play. Be back before dark.' Sometimes, we can't do that anymore because of issues in society. But at the same time, we just need to let them go out and play whiffle ball and let them learn how to deal and interact."

How do we give our kids the skills to combat anxiety?

Experts say breaking down the stigma about mental health is a good first step. They advise talking openly about depression and anxiety and continuing to ask questions, even if your child doesn't answer.

"My hope is that someday people will look at mental health the same way we look at physical health," Elliott said. "They're intertwined and we're holistic human beings. They need to be treated as equally important."

Proper self-care also can go a long way. Get into an exercise routine with your child. Prepare healthy meals and make sure they get a good amount of sleep. Go with them to volunteer at their favorite charity and remind them (and yourself) to put down the phone every once in a while.

"You have to help your kids manage their anxiety, not eliminate it," Elliot said.

For anyone seeking outside help, talk to your local pediatrician or ask your child's school counselor for resources. David Goff said although medication can be helpful, it should be prescribed after kids have tried other counseling techniques.

"Lots of people's first step is seeking medication," he said. "I think medicine isn't always the answer. I describe medication as a crutch. If you break your ankle, you use crutches until your ankle heals. Medication can provide that tool as we try to work with your anxiety and seek counseling."

What do I do if my child refuses help?

Sometimes, kids think that if they go to therapy, they're crazy. But that's not the case.

"Let them control the therapy. Let them pick the therapist," dePeo-Christner said. "Have some type of agreement about what it's going to look like and then see if they can buy into it and start to feel better."

All the panelists agree that there's one thing parents absolutely cannot do: stop trying.

"One of the hardest things for me to hear is when a parent comes in and says, 'I give up,'" David Goff said. "We're parents. That means we fight to the death for our kids and that means you keep trying. Sometimes it will be the hardest process you've ever gone through but it's your kid and you'll continue to fight for them."

CAITLYN JONES can be reached at 940-566-6862.

If You Go

Denton ISD's Counseling and Social Work Department hosts free community forums once a semester. Here's the information for the next session:

What: How to Manage and Organize Your Family

When: 6:30 to 8 p.m. Wednesday, March 7

Where: Denton ISD Central Services boardroom, 1307 N. Locust St.

Contact: Call the Counseling and Social Work Department at 940-369-0160