The first time Jessica Calise can remember her 9-year-old son Joseph's anxiety spiking was about a year ago, when he had to perform at a school concert. He said his stomach hurt and he might throw up. "We spent the whole performance in the bathroom," she recalls. After that, Joseph struggled whenever he had to do something alone, like showering or sleeping in his bedroom. He would beg his parents to sit outside the bathroom door or let him sleep in their bed. "It's heartbreaking to see your child so upset and feel like he's going to throw up because he's nervous about something that, in my mind, is no big deal," Jessica says.
Jessica decided to enroll in an experimental program, one that was very different from other therapy for childhood anxiety that she knew about. It wasn't Joseph who would be seeing a therapist every week — it would be her.The program was part of a Yale University study that treated children's anxiety by teaching their parents new ways of responding to it.
"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.
Lebowitz's research explores whether training only the parents without including direct child therapy can help. He is running experiments to compare cognitive behavioral therapy for the child with parent-only training. A study of the approach appeared in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry last month.
[For more of this report, go to https://www.npr.org/sections/h...hem-face-their-fears]