Anxious parents tend to raise anxious children. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
According to a 2014 study published in The American Journal of Psychiatry, preventative therapy and a change in parenting can help curb childhood anxiety.
Researchers at the University of Connecticut, led by professor of psychiatry Golda Ginsburg, worked directly with 136 families who had at least one parent who had been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and at least one child – aged 6 to 13 – who had not. Half of the families were treated with eight sessions of family therapy over eight weeks.
The children were excused from the first two sessions, while the adults discussed how their own anxieties might be affecting their children. During the remaining six sessions, the entire family discussed strategies to recognize and cope with anxiety moving forward. The therapists worked to convince parents that children have to face their fears in order to effectively reduce anxiety.
Meanwhile, the other half of the families were given handouts and paperwork which only described the symptoms of anxiety disorders.
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After a year, both groups of children involved in the study – those who received therapy and those who received literature – were assessed for anxiety disorders. Only 5% of children who underwent therapy had been diagnosed with any sort of anxiety disorder, whereas 31% of those who received the handout were diagnosed. At the one-year follow-up, twelve months after the initial results, those children who had received handouts also had higher anxiety symptoms ratings than their counterparts.
The study suggests that anxiety can be treated with proactive, rather than reactive intervention. Preventative measures, like the kinds used to routinely service our cars or get medical checkups, can help children who are at risk for anxiety disorders.
Anxiety is natural. It’s a response to danger, stress or high stakes situations. But people who suffer from an anxiety disorder receive those waves of dread or discomfort without the impetus of threat or danger. It’s a feeling without context, and in children, it can be caused by something as simple as completing a homework assignment or holding a conversation with peers.
These disorders are caused by a wide array of factors, but they tend to run in families. Parents with at-risk children should avoid demonstrating anxiety wherever possible, whether it be overreacting to a negative situation or verbalizing personal insecurities in front of the kids.
Research suggests that anxiety is something to be addressed head-on. Parents who allow their children to avoid and circumvent their fears will only aggravate anxiety later on. For example, kids who are apprehensive in social situations are going to work to avoid direct interaction with their peers. Parents who facilitate that behavior are only exacerbating the issue. Children should be encouraged to address these anxieties and tackle their fears, lest they manifest and grow into something much less manageable later in life.
Anxiety is genetic and environmental. Anxious parents raise anxious children. But proactivity and therapy can help reduce these behaviors in kids, and they can effectively end serious anxiety – a most unwelcomed family tradition.