Shielding Children From Scary Situations Often Backfires

Parents' attempts to shield their children from scary situations could be backfiring and creating more anxiety-ridden kids, according to a recent study by the Mayo Clinic published in this month's edition of Behavior Therapy. Researchers at the clinic looked at over 800 children between the ages of 7 and 18, and along with their conclusions, the report also provides a new way to measure avoidance behavior in children.

The scholars developed two eight-question surveys: the Children's Avoidance Measure Parent Report and the Children's Avoidance Measure Self Report to find out the children's avoidance tendencies as viewed by themselves and their parents. The children and parents were asked questions like "When your child is scared or worried about something, does he or she ask to do it later?" In a similar vein, children are asked if they continually avoid situations that scare and worry them.

In the most surprising finding, researchers discovered that measuring childhood avoidance was a good way to predict future development of anxiety. Those who engaged in a lot of avoidance behavior were more likely to report increased level of anxiety a year later than those whose who had average avoidance scores.

"This new approach may enable us to identify kids who are at risk for an anxiety disorder," says lead author Stephen Whiteside, Ph.D., a pediatric psychologist with the Mayo Clinic Children's Center. "And further, because cognitive behavior therapy focuses on decreasing avoidance behaviors, our approach may also provide a means to evaluate whether current treatment strategies work they we think they do."

The good news was that exposing children to situations that frightened or alarmed them slowly and over a period of time served to reduce both their self-reported avoidance scores and those reported by their parents by 50%. Twenty-five children participated in that phase of the study. The success with this limited samples bodes well for this kind of behavior modification technique used on a larger group of kid.

Most children experience fears of one kind or another, but for some children those fears become heightened as part of an anxiety disorder. When children begin to avoid scary situations, anxiety disorders can become particularly disabling, preventing participation in everyday activities. Even though several methods exist to gauge children's fearful thinking and symptoms like feeling nervous, clinicians have had few tools until now to measure avoidance behaviors.

Dr. Whiteside is the developer of the Mayo Clinic Anxiety Coach, an iPhone app that helps individuals learn about anxiety, gauge and manage their symptoms, and make lists of activities to help them face their fears. The study was funded by Mayo Clinic Department of Psychiatry and Psychology.

03 15, 2013
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