Anxiety and worry serves a biological purpose. It helps protect us from potential danger by pumping our body with the chemicals and energy to fight or flight. However, sometimes children (and adults) experience anxiety over situations that pose no danger.
What’s a parent to do in this situation? When your child expresses discomfort or anxiety over something benign, like riding a bike or the neighbor’s friendly dog, a parent’s first inclination is to do anything to alleviate that anxiety. For example, a parent with a child who begins to develop worry over sleeping in their own bed might allow the child to sleep in their bed because it eliminates that uncomfortable, anxious feeling. This approach might help in the moment, but avoiding situations that provoke anxiety often further perpetuates that anxiety. This fact is the underlying theory for exposure and response prevention therapy, a treatment approach for anxiety that has been empirically validated through multiple research studies.
How Does Exposure Therapy Work?
Exposure therapy involves creating a hierarchy of situations around a specific fear with the most anxiety provoking situation at the top. In treatment, therapists can support your child in developing this hierarchy, learning coping strategies, and providing exposure to each trigger on the hierarchy starting from the bottom. While exposure therapy is typically a short term therapy for mild to moderate cases (8-12 sessions), the goal is to go slowly and at the child’s comfortable pace. You only move on to the next step on the hierarchy when the anxiety provoked by the previous step has faded.
What is the One Simple Step Parents Can Take to Help Their Anxious Child?
Help them face their fears and not avoid them. Talk to your child about how you want to help them feel comfortable in that situation and ask them to identify baby steps to slowly work towards that comfort. Exposure therapy should only be done under the care of an experienced clinician. If your child struggles with specific fears or obsessive-compulsive symptoms, seek a skilled therapist to guide you and your child in overcoming these symptoms and improving their daily functioning.
NSPT offers services in Bucktown, Evanston, Highland Park, Lincolnwood, Glenview, Lake Bluff and Des Plaines. If you have questions or concerns about your child, we would love to help! Give us a call at (877) 486-4140 and speak to one of our Family Child Advocates today!