Study: Avoiding Fears Makes Kids More Anxious

iStockphotoBy Leonora Desar

Do you indulge your kid's fears or do you push him to conquer them? A new study by the Mayo Clinic shows that kids who avoid scary situations are actually more likely to have anxiety than kids who face their fears.

The study surveyed both parents and their children, and included more than 800 kids from ages 7 to 18. Parents were asked to describe their kids' avoidance behaviors, while children were asked about their own tendencies in situations that make them uncomfortable.

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The researchers found that kids who avoided situations that they found frightening were more likely to be anxious a year later. "This new approach may enable us to identify kids who are at risk for an anxiety disorder," said 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 the way we think they do."

When 25 kids received cognitive behavior therapy that gradually exposed them to situations that scared them, their avoidance scores dropped in half. "Even after controlling for their baseline anxiety, those who avoided had more anxiety than kids who didn't avoid," said Dr. Whiteside. "That was consistent with the model of how anxiety disorders develop. Kids who avoid fearful situations don't have the opportunity to face their fears and don't learn that their fears are manageable."

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Research shows that anxiety disorders can cause problems in adolescence and adulthood if left untreated. If your child seems to worry a lot, get treatment early on. Your pediatrician may recommend cognitive behavior therapy to help them gain a sense of control and boost their self-esteem. Play therapy is often used with the youngest kids, and treatment takes place over weeks or months rather than years.

Does your child experience extreme anxiety? Leave a comment.

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