A new study finds that a family intervention can help anxious parents raise calm kids.
Children of anxious parents are at an increased risk of developing anxiety, but that doesn’t have to be the case, according to new research by University of Connecticut Health psychiatrist Dr. Golda Ginsburg.
The study, published in The American Journal of Psychiatry, found family-based intervention works. Only nine percent of children who participated in a therapist-directed family intervention developed anxiety after one year, compared to 21 percent in a group that received written instruction, and 31 percent in the group that did not receive any therapy or written instruction.
“The finding underscores the vulnerability of offspring of anxious parents,” Ginsburg said. “If we can identify kids at risk, let’s try and prevent this.”
Anxiety tends to run in families, with up to 50 percent of children of anxious parents growing up to be anxious themselves, she noted.
“Anxiety and fear are protective and adaptive,” Ginsburg said. “But in anxious kids they may not be, because these children have thoughts about danger and threat when there really isn’t one.”
Both inborn temperament and life experiences play a role, she said. The more negative experiences a person has growing up, the greater the likelihood he or she will struggle with anxiety as an adult.
Most of the adults who participated in the study struggled in school and didn’t tell anyone. They didn’t raise their hands, or they got sick before exams. They might not have had any friends. As adults, their anxiety limits their activities and sometimes those of their family members.
During the study, some of the families participated in eight, hour-long sessions with a trained therapist over a period of two months. Others were just given a pamphlet that contained general information about anxiety disorders and treatments. Still others received nothing at all.
The families who participated in therapy were taught to identify the signs of anxiety and how to reduce it. They practiced problem-solving skills, and exercised safe exposures to whatever made their child anxious.
One of the ways to reduce anxiety is a reality check, according to Ginsburg, such as learning to recognize when a fear is healthy and worth paying attention to, like a growling dog, or unhealthy, like a suspicion that the birthday cake is poisoned.
“We taught the kids how to identify scary thoughts, and how to change them,” Ginsburg said.
For example, if a child is afraid of cats and encounters one in the street, she can first identify the scary thought: “That cat is going to hurt me.” Then she can test that thought: “Is it likely that the cat will hurt me? No, the cat doesn’t look angry. It isn’t baring its teeth or hissing, it’s just sitting there. OK, I can walk past that cat and it won’t do anything.”
The researchers found that, in general, children who participated in the intervention had lower anxiety overall than children who did not participate in the intervention with their families.
The researchers now have received funding from the National Institutes of Health for a follow-up to see whether the effects are maintained over time.
Ginsburg said she wonders whether there would be value in providing regular mental health checkups for families. She added she is considering approaching insurers about offering this to families at risk, to see if it lowers their healthcare costs overall.
“I’d say we need to change our model of mental health to a checkup method — like going to the dentist every six months,” she said.
This article first appeared on ‘Psych Central’ on 28 September 2015.