Are You Giving Your Child Anxiety?

A new study published in The American Journal of Psychiatry, shows that a change in parenting styles can actually help reduce your child’s anxiety. Because anxiety runs in families, the study focused on whether it was possible to prevent children from developing an anxiety disorder. These findings are especially relevant for children with special needs who experience more anxiety than typical children.

The study looked at multiple parenting factors that can evoke anxiety in children. An important factor was how parents frequently, directly or indirectly, model fear and anxiety.

This type of modeling might be direct, like “jumping up on the kitchen table when you see a mouse,” or indirect, “like overcautioning your kids to be careful when there’s no danger.”

When children observe their parents being overprotective and showing excessive anxiety when coping with their own problems, or anxiety over their child’s well-being, it causes a domino effect: the child, too, can become anxious whenever risk is present, develop learned patterns, and in time may learn that life itself is something to be feared.

To prevent this domino effect, the study suggests holding a few therapy sessions with the parents, discussing the impact of parental anxiety on their family, and examining how often they may inadvertently raise levels of anxiety in their children. The next therapy sessions are with the entire family, and each family member is asked to determine how they recognize anxiety and what strategies they could use to cope with it.

In addition to recommending that parents learn to limit overcautioning and showing their own anxieties when with their children, Golda Ginsburg, who led the research, also stresses that parents must understand it’s important that children learn how to manage their own fears. For example, if a situation causes anxiety for a child—let’s say grocery shopping—the very idea of heading to that grocery store might cause fear. Instead of getting the child to the store and helping them face that situation head-on, parents too often help their children avoid anxiety-provoking situations altogether. They might arrange a babysitter for the child while they shop because they are worried it’s too much for the child. “When in fact parents need to help them face their fears in order to reduce anxiety,” says Ginsburg.

Although experiencing worry, anxiety, or fear is part of growing up for everyone, children with special needs have more than their fair share. Their anxiety may be deeper, more negative, or more exaggerated. Learning the best approaches to cut down on your child’s anxiety is one of the ways you can help them reduce negative thoughts, gain control and reach independence.

One of the best approaches, says Lynne Siqueland, a clinical psychologist who specializes in treating anxiety disorders in children, is not trying to prevent anxiety, but instead “promoting your child’s incompetence in handling it.” Siqueland provides workshops for parents to help their kids cope with anxiety, and it includes coaching their kids through anxiety when it happens, and sitting calmly with the child while he musters the courage to face the situation. She says this type of therapy is typically an “aha” moment for the parents: “that kids who worry about things need more practice, not less.”

She also delivers an important message to parents: Anxiety is very treatable. “Kids are not doomed to distress.”

To learn more about this study, click here.

Teaching Social Boundaries, Social Skills, Job Skills, and Transition readiness training can go a long way in preparing students with special needs for real life with confidence instead of fear. At James Stanfield, that’s what we do.

[box style=”rounded” border=”full”]Here are some great sources for more information about anxiety for parents and teachers of children with special needs:

Helping Children with Special Needs Cope with Fears, Anxieties, and Worries: A guide for teachers and parents
Special Needs Children: Depression and Anxiety Symptoms: a study
WorryWiseKids: Lynne Siqueland’s website for parents of children with anxiety

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