By Linda G. Ritchie, Ph.D.
When it comes to taking care of our children, every parent wants to do the right thing. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that more than 9 percent of teenagers have an anxiety disorder, with symptoms commonly emerging around age 6. The right treatment for treating a child’s anxiety is what works best for that child. With treatment, the prognosis for anxiety disorders is very good, but left untreated, the interference from anxiety will become increasingly disabling over time.
There are a wide variety of anxiety disorders and include:
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD, and
Social Phobia (or Social Anxiety Disorder)
Collectively, anxiety disorders are among the most common mental disorders experienced by Americans. There are hundreds of research studies that show Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to be the treatment of choice for anxiety and there is significant evidence for it’s lasting success with children. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is problem-oriented, directive, and psycho-educational with the goals of changing thoughts, improving skills, and modifying emotional states. It is a collaborative approach to therapy with the therapist, the child and the parents working together to identify and solve problems
Cognitive distortions typically play a key role in propelling anxiety as these distortions lead to misinterpretations of environmental threats and undermine a child’s coping abilities. Another primary factor in maintaining anxiety in a child is behavioral avoidance. Avoidant behavior is triggered by a distressing event and then is reinforced by the reduction in the feelings of anxiety that follows. The cycle is perpetuated and reinforced by continued avoidance, withdrawal, and catastrophic beliefs.
Using CBT techniques, a therapist strives to teach the child or adolescent new approaches to behaviors, concrete problem solving skills, and strategies for challenging maladaptive or unrealistic anxious thoughts and beliefs. CBT addresses most anxiety disorders with four main areas of interventions.
1. Psychoeducation: Children need an explanation for how anxiety is triggered and maintained and how feeling anxious does not accurately reflect the danger or risk in a situation.
2. Cognitive Restructuring: Anxious children have anxious thoughts and their first automatic thought is typically about the most awful thing that could happen in a situation. Cognitive restructuring helps a child to challenge that first automatic thought and replace it with a more realistic, proactive one.
3. Breathing and Relaxation: Anxious thinking will cause the body to rev up. Learning to breathe and relax will help a child feel less anxious.
4. Imagined and In-Vivo Exposure: This technique helps a child approach previously feared situations with their new skills.
If you think your child has an anxiety disorder, the first step is to consult with a mental health professional. You should feel comfortable talking with the professional you choose. As a parent, you will work collaboratively with the therapist and your child to help him or her overcome the anxiety.