Parents Can Help Prevent Anxiety Disorders in Children.
Anxiety is a common problem for children and adults, and it tends to run in families. In children, anxiety can show up in a variety of ways including separation anxiety, fears of specific things or situations, or chronic worry about what might happen. About 10% of children and teens in the United States meet criteria for having an anxiety disorder, which means their level of worry is negatively impacting daily functioning. There are many effective tools to help children with anxiety disorders, but it is also possible to use strategies to prevent anxiety from becoming a disorder in the first place.
Since children with anxiety disorders are more likely to have anxious parents, a recent research study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry considered whether it’s possible to prevent these children from developing an anxiety disorder. Their results demonstrate that parents can learn specific strategies to manage their own anxiety, which then reduces anxiety in their children. Parents can also reduce symptoms in their children by learning specific strategies to help children cope with fear and uncertainty.
The study had anxious parents participate in a family-based intervention program for one year to assess the effectiveness of an anxiety prevention program for children who did not have anxiety but were considered at high-risk for its development because of family history. 136 families with at least one child between the ages of 6 and 13 years were divided into treatment and control programs. At least one child in each family did not meet criteria for an anxiety disorder or other psychiatric or medical conditions, and they were not receiving other anxiety-related treatments.
The families in the intervention group received weekly counseling sessions with a trained therapist for 8 weeks and 3 optional monthly booster sessions. Families were taught how to identify signs of anxiety, strategies to reduce it, how to problem solve, identify and disengage from irrational or maladaptive thoughts, tools for redirecting children’s behavior and how to desensitize themselves to anxiety-triggering situations. They were also taught parenting strategies to prevent anxiety in their children. The families in the control group were given a 36-page pamphlet that contained generalized information about anxiety disorders and their treatments, which is the usual protocol for children of anxious parents.
After the one-year treatment period, 5% of children in the intervention and 31% in the control group had developed an anxiety disorder. That means that children who were not in the treatment group developed an anxiety disorder at 7 times the rate as children whose family did receive the intervention! In follow-up assessments, the youth whose families had received therapy treatments continued to display significantly lower anxiety symptoms.
What does this mean?
This study shows that parents play an important role in helping children learn how to identify and manage anxiety so it doesn’t become a serious problem. In addition to managing their own anxiety more effectively, parents should also avoid over-cautioning their children when there’s no danger, and help kids develop the competence to face their fears rather than sheltering them from anxiety-provoking situations.
There are specific examples and strategies for managing anxiety for both parents and adults in Parts five, six, and seven of my book LIFE WILL GET BETTER Simple Solutions for Parents of Children with Attention, Anxiety, Mood and Behavior Challenges.
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- Ginsburg, G.S., Drake, K.L, Tein, J., Teetsel, R., and Riddle, M.A. (2015). Preventing the onset of anxiety disorders in offspring of anxious parents: A randomized controlled trial of a family-based intervention. American Journal of Psychiatry, 172: 12-7-1214. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2015.14091178