Everyone has their own fears, anxieties, and worries. But are they rational? Are they being passed on to our children? Studies say that indeed, they are. But that can change, with help from a professional, according to new research by UConn Health psychiatrist Golda Ginsburg.
Ginsburg and colleagues at Johns Hopkins University tested a one-year family therapy intervention as part of a study of 136 families with at least one parent with anxiety and at least one child between the ages of 6 and 13.The study’s findings show that family based therapy actually works to curb the irrational anxieties that parents are passing down to their little ones.
Most of the time, therapy for anxious children is offered in schools, as many of them suffer from social anxiety. Anxiety in children is a little different than anxiety in adults, though most adult anxiety starts at a very young age.
To cope with this kind of debilitating anxiety, kids start avoiding whatever provokes the anxious feelings. If they’re afraid of the dark, they might insist on sleeping with all the lights on. If they’re afraid of failing, they won’t try new things. In extreme cases, they may refuse even to leave the house.
“Anxiety and fear are protective and adaptive,” says Ginsburg. “But in anxious kids they may not be, because these children have thoughts about danger and threat when there really isn’t one.”
Most of the anxiety in children is natural, and is caused by negative experiences. The more negative experiences a child has, the more likely they are to develop an anxiety disorder of some type. But there is also a component of anxiety that is learned, taught inadvertently by parents who model the behavior.
It’s these learned behaviors and thought patterns that interventions can help change. In the study, there were some families who participated in the family therapy sessions, some were only given pamphlets about anxiety, and others received nothing at all.
The families who participated in therapy were taught to identify the signs of anxiety and how to reduce it. They practiced problem-solving skills, and exercised safe exposures to whatever made their child anxious.
“We taught the kids how to identify scary thoughts, and how to change them,” Ginsburg says. For example, if a child is afraid of cats and encounters one in the street, the child can first identify the scary thought: “That cat is going to hurt me.”
Then the child can test that thought — is it likely that the cat will hurt me? No, the cat doesn’t look angry. It isn’t baring its teeth or hissing, it’s just sitting there. OK, I can walk past that cat and it won’t do anything.
In general, children who participated in the intervention had lower anxiety overall than children who did not participate in the intervention with their families.
Mike Bundrant is originator of the Smart, Anxious Misfit character type. Check out the 21 characteristics of SAMs here.