This is my shocked face. No, really. I am shocked. From, of all places, National Public Radio, a report on a new approach to help kids with anxiety suggests that the best thing to do might be to–wait for it–“let them face their fears.” I about choked on my coffee when I read that.
Of course, there’s therapy involved. But what is different about this approach from such previous, rather rational (one would think), approaches and conclusions is that in this version of the cure, the child is not part of the behavior-changing conversation, and is not part of the therapy. The therapy is for the parents:
“The parent’s own responses are a core and integral part of childhood anxiety,” says Eli Lebowitz, a psychologist at the Yale School of Medicine who developed the training.
For instance, when Joseph would get scared about sleeping alone, Jessica and her husband, Chris Calise, did what he asked and comforted him. “In my mind, I was doing the right thing,” she says. “I would say, ‘I’m right outside the door’ or ‘Come sleep in my bed.’ I’d do whatever I could to make him feel not anxious or worried.”
But this comforting — something psychologists call accommodation — can actually be counterproductive for children with anxiety disorders, Lebowitz says.
“These accommodations lead to worse anxiety in their child, rather than less anxiety,” he says. That’s because the child is always relying on the parents, he explains, so kids never learn to deal with stressful situations on their own and never learn they have the ability to cope with these moments.
“When you provide a lot of accommodation, the unspoken message is, ‘You can’t do this, so I’m going to help you,’ ” he says.
Lebowitz wondered if it would help to train parents to change that message and to encourage their children to face anxieties rather than flee from them.
And it did!
The key to doing that, Lebowitz says, is to make children feel heard and loved, while using supportive statements to build their confidence. Parents need to “show their child that they understand how terrible it is to feel anxious,” he says. They need to accept that their child is “genuinely anxious and not just being attention seeking,” he adds.
The next step is to tell children that “they can tolerate that anxiety and they don’t need to be rescued from it.” This helps give them the strength to face their fears, Lebowitz says.
The conclusion of the Yale-sponsored study is that “parent training has a lot of potential to advance childhood anxiety treatment,” and that, according to Columbia University psychologist Anne Marie Albano:
“You coach the child a bit but don’t take over. It’s helping the child stumble into their own way of coping and ride whatever wave of anxiety they’re having,” she says. “That ultimately builds their confidence.”
Clearly, the term “childhood anxiety” is a term covering a multitude of conditions which may stem from many different causes, and no doubt this “new approach” won’t work every time. But crimenutely, it’s a very good start.
As young Joseph himself says:
. . . he no longer feels anxiety about being alone. He doesn’t enjoy it, “but I’m OK with it,” he says. He has learned to banish the frightening thoughts that would come when he was by himself and that kept him up at night. “If I get a nightmare, I just change the subject to something happy,” he says. “Then I’m fine.”
New fears come up from time to time — like a recently discovered fear of heights. But with his parents’ support, Joseph says, he’s learning to face these too. “I think I’ll be OK,” he says. “I’ll just try to do it.”
Good for you, young man. And good for your parents for recognizing a problem, finding out what to do about it, and helping you cope.
I was particularly encouraged to read the above story at almost the same time I ran across this one, detailing a bias complaint filed against a Michigan University student by his roommate. The alleged offense? The roommate awoke from a nap to find the target of his complaint — oh, the horror! — watching a Ben Shapiro video. I can’t even. (Full disclosure: I’m not exactly sure what that last phrase means, but I use it as often as I can because I think it makes a privileged old baby-boomer look woke and with it, and this seems like a perfect opportunity to show off my chops.) Apparently, the young fellow’s gripe is that “MSU has roomed me with someone who supports hate speach.” [sic]
Now, we just have to figure out how to enroll almost every college administrator and faculty member in Dr. Lebowitz’s program, and we might really get somewhere…