Whether they’re afraid to go to school, throw tantrums before visits to the dentist or doctor or spend hours in their room at home dreading the start of the school year, some kids are suffering from severe anxiety and need treatment. But you don’t have to watch your child suffer: with the right treatment, children can dramatically improve their level of anxiety and learn to manage it themselves, without the need for medication or therapy.
Kids can be hard to read, especially if they’re anxious. They may be reluctant to talk or even avoid talking about their anxieties. They may withdraw from family or friends, and they can be easily distracted by worry. They can have a difficult time falling asleep because of anxiety, or they might start skipping classes and getting poor grades in school.
Many people don’t consider these behavior problems to be anxiety disorders, but they are, and they can lead to a variety of other issues like depression, drug or alcohol abuse, social isolation and suicide. When left untreated, anxiety can also be physically debilitating and cause a host of physical symptoms.
There are a number of different treatments for child anxiety, but the one that has the most proven success is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). In studies, kids with moderate levels of anxiety make significant progress after 8 to 12 CBT sessions. If your child is more severely anxious, a combination of CBT and anti-anxiety medication can produce even better results.
A therapist trained in CBT can help your child overcome his or her anxiety, identifying the biological causes and teaching them to cope with the resulting feelings of fear and worry. A therapist can teach your child to change their thought patterns, engage in relaxation activities and practice problem-solving. Often, a therapist will work with parents as well, teaching them how to support their child’s new skills.
Some kids and teens need more individualized approaches to their anxiety. A therapist trained in family systems can help your child and family work through relationship issues that contribute to the anxiety. Alternatively, some therapists use mindfulness techniques to help kids observe and accept their thoughts and feelings.
Sometimes, even though a child is making progress, it’s not enough. In these cases, a psychiatrist can prescribe medication to help reduce the anxiety and calm the child down. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are the drugs of choice for anxiety treatment. While some studies have reported a small increase in suicidal behaviors with certain medications, they are generally safe and effective for short-term use in kids and teens.
It’s important to remember that the goal of treatment is not to completely eliminate your child’s anxiety, but to teach him or her to effectively manage it. As the evidence continues to mount, more and more parents are recognizing that they need to take action when their child’s anxiety becomes disruptive or life-limiting. Seek the advice of your child’s primary care physician to rule out medical issues that might be contributing to the problem and for a referral to a mental health professional.