Family therapy may help prevent anxiety in children

Therapy sessions that involve the whole family may help prevent anxiety in children whose parents suffer from an anxiety disorder, according to two recent studies.

Surveys suggest anxiety disorders affect at least three per cent of children below the age of puberty at any one time and that they may be more widespread than depression or chronic behavioural problems.

There is also growing evidence that parenting contributes to severe anxieties in childhood, not least if it is low on affection, overprotective, or characterized by harsh punishment, shouting and anger.

Researchers in America found that nine per cent of children whose families participated in a year-long therapy intervention developed an anxiety disorder during the study period, whereas 21 per cent of children in a control group, who received a pamphlet about anxiety disorders, developed an anxiety disorder during the study.

In a third group, in which families received neither written instruction nor therapy, 31 per cent of children developed anxiety.

The study included 136 families that had at least one parent with an anxiety disorder, and at least one child between ages 6 and 13.

The families in the intervention group participated in eight sessions with a trained therapist over the course of the year. Each session lasted two hours.

Researchers at the University of Manchester are also investigated the scope for an intervention where parents were taught to have a warmer, more nurturing relationship with their children, along with cognitive-behavioural techniques.

The children’s diagnoses spanned a wide range of conditions, including separation anxiety, panic disorder, phobias, depression and posttraumatic stress disorder.

Their parents, working in groups of between three and seven families, attended ten parenting sessions lasting two hours each. Each session was delivered by clinical psychologists, who educated parents about the use of gentle, positive discipline to manage difficult behavior and promote confidence.

Families taking part in the trial were randomly assigned to take part in Timid to Tiger, or to a waitlist group who would receive the intervention 10 weeks later.

Of the 27 children in the treatment group, 21 no longer had their primary diagnosis after the intervention, compared with five out of 33 children in the waitlist group. Follow-up data also indicated that the positive results were being maintained a year later when 20 children in the intervention group remained free of their primary diagnosis and 17 no longer had any anxiety diagnosis.

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