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Anxiety isn't always easy to spot; expert panel recommends screening kids young

Jana Shortal asked child psychologist Dr. Sarah Jerstad of Children's Minnesota if screening all kids for anxiety at their annual doctor visit is a good idea.

GOLDEN VALLEY, Minn. — The U.S. Preventative Services Task Force is recommending for the first time ever that doctors who treat our children start screening them, beginning at age 8, for anxiety.

If you think a child as young as eight couldn't possibly benefit from a few questions about if they are anxious, then consider this: A recent household survey found that 30% of adolescents meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder.

With that in mind, Jana asked child psychologist Dr. Sarah Jerstad of Children's Minnesota if she thought screening all kids for anxiety when they go to their annual doctor visit is a good idea.

"I think it's a great idea," she says. 

She has two big reasons for saying that.

"You can't help someone if you don't know what is going on, and so the first thing we need to do is find out if something is going on...this is a communication that mental health struggles are normal and they are common, they happen often. When we start to ask about them it normalizes them to kids and parents that this could be something your child is struggling with and they could get help."

Anxiety in kids isn't always easy to spot, so that's part of the reason to recommend the screening.

"With anxiety in particular, it's not always something that is going to be evident to people, so teachers might notice if kids have disruptive behavior or attention problems because that is pretty evident in the classroom, but with anxiety, it's an internalizing disorder so a lot of times kids' struggles stay inside and adults may not be aware of what is going on."

The questions geared towards kids would include things like asking them about things in their life that they might worry about, and giving them examples.

"First of all, just kind of normalize. Lots of people feel worried when maybe they have a big test, or when something is going to happen at school, or if you have to talk in front of other kids, or any of those kind of things — normalizing helps a child feel a little more comfortable answering those types of questions."

And if the questions happen at every visit — and they are just questions versus invasive tests — the young person begins to know they can open up about it.

If the screening shows the child might need more support, that is told to the parents. They don't diagnose a child out of a screening.

The parents can decide what to do with the information.

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