Anxiety disorders tend to run in families, but anxious parents don’t have to sit back and fret as their children develop the same disorders.
Preventative therapy could stop kids from becoming overly anxious, according to research published in The American Journal of Psychiatry on Friday (Sept. 25).
The researchers, led by Golda Ginsburg at the University of Connecticut, worked with 136 families where at least one parent had an anxiety disorder and one child, aged 6 to 13 years old, did not.
Half the families had eight family-therapy sessions, while the other half were given a handout describing symptoms of anxiety disorders. One year later, the children were then assessed for anxiety disorders. While 31% of those who received the handout were diagnosed, just 5% of children who’d received family therapy were found to have an anxiety disorder.
The study suggests that, instead of waiting for a child to develop an anxiety disorder and then helping them cope, we could take a more proactive approach to mental health.
“In the medical system there are other prevention models, like dental care, where we go every six months for a cleaning,” Ginsburg told NPR. “Adopting that kind of model—a mental health checkup, a prevention model for folks who are at risk—is I think where we need to go next.”
Anxiety disorders are influenced by both genetics and environment, but Ginsburg says that anxious behavior in parents, such as obviously showing signs of worry or constantly telling children to be careful, can create anxiety in their offspring.
In the therapy sessions, Ginsburg says parents were taught to help children face their fears, instead of avoiding them. This practice helped children to manage their anxiety.
Therapy proved successful for a year, and the researchers plan to continue monitoring the children to see whether they go on to develop an anxiety disorder later in life.
If we get better at using therapy to prevent anxiety disorders, then instead of treating the millions of people who suffer from the illness, therapy could help them avoid it altogether.