Can Childhood Anxiety be Prevented?

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health disorders affecting Americans, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, many with roots in childhood.  Anxiety disorders can range from post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and specific phobias to a generalized anxiety disorder.  While anxiety in and of itself is normal and an expected part of life, people with anxiety disorders feel levels of anxiety that are out of proportion to the situation or in situations where there is simply no threat.

Experts say anxiety is a combination of genetic and environmental factors.  In children, anxiety can manifest in many ways including:

  • Separation anxiety from parents or caregivers
  • Social anxiety in the classroom or social environments
  • Overwhelming worry

According to NIMH, about 8%of teens ages 13-18 have an anxiety disorder, with symptoms commonly beginning around age 6. Unfortunately, of these teens, only 18% received mental health care.  Further studies from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America show that 80% of kids with a diagnosable anxiety disorder and 60% of kids with diagnosable depression are not getting treated, according to the 2015 Child Mind Institute Children’s Mental Health Report (ADAA, 2015).

The disorders do run in families, and there are parenting behaviors that can actually promote anxiety.  According to Golda Ginsburg, a professor of psychiatry at UConn Health , parental “modeling” is one factor.  By modeling anxiety in front of children, it becomes a learned behavior.  Modeling can include jumping on the couch at the site of a spider or over-cautioning children when there isn’t any actual danger (Shallcross, 2015).

While children of anxious parents are at a higher risk of developing an anxiety disorder, a new study shows that it may not be the inevitable path.  New research from The American Journal of Psychiatry from UConn Health and Johns Hopkins University has indicated that therapy and a change in parenting styles may be able to help prevent some kids from developing anxiety disorders.

The study examined 136 families with at least one parent diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and one child between 6 to 13 who was not yet diagnosed.  About half the failies received 8 weekly sessions of therapy and the other half received only a 30-page handout with information on how to reduce anxiety.

In families who received family therapy only 5% of the children had been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder one year later.  Families that received only the handout had 31% of children diagnosed in the same time period.   A staggering difference indicating therapeutic intervention can help curb anxiety in children that would support a shift towards prevention.  Part of the family therapy involves teaching parents how to help their children face and cope with their fears, rather than just avoid them.

These same families will continue to be followed by researchers to track if the children receiving therapy develop anxiety disorders later in adolescence.