Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Reducing Anxiety in Children

Anxiety serves a useful purpose. It helps us to be careful of danger or on alert when we need to be at our best. But it can also reduce our ability to cope with stress, cause overreactions to minor problems, or be the impetus to total meltdowns and shutdowns.

Children with many different types of disabilities experience elevated levels of anxiety. Those with autism have an overall elevated level at all times. Children with ADHD are often worried that they don't know classroom and home expectations. Youngsters with a specific learning disability are concerned that they are just stupid and unable to change their circumstances.

New methods have been developed to help youngsters learn to reduce their own anxiety. These strategies involve unlearning the thought processes that create undue anxious feelings.

Theories regarding the source of anxiety now include both genetic and learned patterns of both thoughts and behaviors. A change in behavior can short circuit these patterns and lower the emotional impact.

Rational emotive behavioral therapy is a treatment method in which patients are taught to identify, challenge, and replace, thoughts that may be self-defeating. Rooted in methods of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, this technique begins by having the child name their fears.

Once they have identified the mental "bully", they are taught to distance themselves from it. This begins with instruction in skills that helps them handle the bully.

To motivate these youngsters, they are helped to create a flowchart showing how their excessive fears are impacting their lives. They discover that anxiety keeps them from favored activities, friendships, and even schooling.

Triggers are identified and ranked according to impact. Therapists then work through cycles of exposure and response prevention with the patient. As the youth faces his or her fears, they become habituated and learn to control reactions such as escape or tears.

Parents play an important part of the process as they learn that shielding their child from the anxiety-provoking stimulus reinforces the harmful pattern. By protecting the youngster, they are actually reinforcing the concept that the object, event, or person really is dangerous and worthy of fear. They also must learn to support the therapeutic methods by encouraging their offspring to face their fears.

For more information on these techniques:
Effects of Psychotherapy for Anxiety in Children and Adolescents: A Meta-Analytic Review Shirley Reynolds, Charlotte Wilson, Joanne Austin, and Lee Hooper in Clinical Psychology Review 32(4), 251-262.

Treating Childhood and Adolescent Anxiety: A Guide for Caregivers. E.R. Lebowitz & H. Omer. John Wiley & Sons, 2013.