Could Parental Support Be The Key To Managing Childhood Anxiety?

By Beth Leipholtz 03/27/19

A new study examined whether parents' accommodation of a child's anxiety had a positive or negative effect on their mental health.

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mother and father offering parental support to child with anxiety

Parental support may be equally as effective as individual treatment when it comes to managing childhood anxiety, a new report suggests. 

According to Yale Daily News, the Yale Child Study Center recently conducted a study in which researchers randomly assigned 124 children with anxiety into one of two groups: a traditional, therapy-based group or a group with parents only. 

The children in the therapy group went to 12 weekly meetings where they learned to use exposure therapy to manage their symptoms and fears. The children in the parent-only group did not speak to a therapist, but instead their parents were taught to “stop accommodating the child’s behavior and to be supportive of the child’s ability to cope with anxiety themselves,” according to the Daily News.

The parent-only treatment was referred to as Supportive Parenting for Anxious Childhood Emotions (SPACE). 

At the conclusion of the study, researchers found that children in the SPACE group had reduced anxiety symptoms, similar to those in conventional therapy. But in the SPACE group, the parents also reported stronger relationships than the parents in the other group.

Study author and associate director of the Anxiety and Mood Disorders Program, Eli Lebowitz, tells the Daily News that SPACE is a treatment method equally as effective as traditional therapy. 

“The results of the study were really quite remarkable,” he said. “Regardless of what measure we used to look at the outcomes, children whose parents received SPACE were as improved and as likely to be cured from their anxiety problem as children who had 12 sessions of some of the best CBT therapy available. And that is truly a remarkable outcome.”

Lebowitz added that while it’s normal for parents to try to adjust to and accommodate a child’s anxiety, doing so may be detrimental in the long run and could lead the child to have greater anxiety.

In the study, researchers worked with parents in the SPACE group to learn to use words of support and express confidence in their child instead. 

In a 2013 study about SPACE, also by Lebowitz, parents were encouraged to follow this script:

“We understand it makes you feel really anxious or afraid,” the script said. “We want you to know that this is perfectly natural and everyone feels afraid some of the time. But we also want you to know that it is our job as your parents to help you get better at things that are hard for you, and we have decided to do exactly that. We are going to be working on this for a while and we know it will probably take time, but we love you too much not to help you when you need help.”

Lebowitz tells the Daily News that while the SPACE study results are promising, more research is necessary in order to determine how psychological pathways in a child’s brain are changed by practicing SPACE. 

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Beth is a Minnesota girl who got sober at age 20. By day she is a website designer, and in her spare time she enjoys writing about recovery at www.lifetobecontinued.com, doing graphic design and spending time with her boyfriend and three dogs. Find Beth on LinkedInInstagram and Twitter.

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