The philosopher Aristotle once noted that nature outfits human beings with emotions for a reason and that all emotions serve a purpose. In this light anxiety is a normal, adaptive emotion. In a healthy context, it serves to motivate us to prepare for future threats.
Yet for some individuals, and children in particular, anxiety occurs too frequently, and sometimes too intensely for the given situation. In these instances, anxiety can impair specific functional areas of the brain, leading to significant distress.
Helping Kids Cope With Fear & Anxiety
Of course, parents naturally want to eliminate their child’s fears and anxiety by providing reassurance or enabling coping mechanisms for escape or avoidance. When this is done for occasional fears, it’s seen as being perfectly acceptable. Though for a child manifesting anxiety disorder these protective responses can actually serve to maintain and increase anxiety over time.
Another underlying problem with this pattern is that if fearful situations are always avoided, it prevents the child from developing the healthy coping mechanisms needed to deal with fear effectively. It essentially prevents the child from having the chance to prove the anxious thoughts wrong, and the cycle of worry continues.
One problem is that the area of the brain that is responsible for fear can override the area of the brain that is responsible for logic and reason. When this happens the emotional response takes over. When this happens enough times the anxious thoughts and feelings become reinforced as part of a larger pattern that is harder to break.
In many cases slowly facing the fear in a reasonably controlled manner will help the child break the pattern. With repetition, they better learn how to handle anxiety-provoking situations. This model has been found to work for many types of anxiety disorders, including:
- Separation anxiety
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Social anxiety
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Coping with abuse or trauma
What Is Exposure Therapy?
Exposure therapy is a type of cognitive-behavioral therapy that is designed to help treat anxiety disorders. For many individuals dealing with an anxiety disorder, it can take 12 to 16 sessions to break the anxiety pattern. The process usually calls for identifying specific fears that are directly related to anxiety-provoking situations, and common triggers.
This might also include things like overestimation of the likelihood and severity of the threat, fears, and anxiety. Recognizing the difference between different degrees of consequences, and outcomes helps lessen the feelings of fear and anxiety the next time they are in a situation with similar triggers.
The goal is to be able to apply logical reasoning to evaluate the accuracy of predictions. Simple and direct questions can help facilitate the process, like asking the child “How often does this happen to me and others?” or “How bad could it be if my fear came true?
As time goes on the gradual exposure to a hierarchy of feared situations is increased. This essentially helps to expand the individual’s tolerance. Over time, common fears and anxiety cycles are broken down to include situations that are easier to handle.
One possible example could be a child who has a fear of dogs. An exposure therapy treatment plan for that child might start with encouraging them to talk about dogs, look at pictures of dogs, and maybe even draw pictures of dogs.
With gradual progress, the child might be asked to view dogs in cages, and perhaps sit in a room with a dog on a leash, without being asked or encouraged to touch it. As the exposure therapy process continues the child might even be invited to pet various dogs that have been screened and deemed to be safe by the owner.
As the anxiety cycles are broken down into smaller, digestible bites, the child’s general sense of fear will come down. Though this might require significant repetition before the child moves to the next higher step. Throughout the process, the child starts to gather evidence to understand the difference between the actual versus the predicted risk. This includes a growing awareness about the temporary nature of their anxiety and the child’s ability to manage it until it comes down.
A lot of children experience a growing sense of confidence in other aspects of their life as they move up their fear hierarchy. By the time they reach the most difficult exercises, they are fully prepared and ready to engage in other hierarchy experiences.
Can Exposure Therapy Be Done At Home?
Early on, it is highly recommended that you and your child work with a qualified mental health professional. They have a considerable amount of experience in exposure therapy, as well as the ways that anxiety can complicate the process. Attempting to perform this type of therapy on your own significantly increases the chances of negative outcomes, that can be even harder to correct later in the therapeutic process.
This can include things like an increase in anxiety as well as a general unwillingness in your child to make further attempts to face their fears. In a case where the anxiety is mild to moderate, parents might be able to be involved in the later stages of the process. That is only after a mental health care professional has helped the child get off on the right foot.
How Can Parents Help With Early Stages Of Exposure Therapy?
You know your child best. You know many of their triggers, and what some of their strongest fears are. Chances are you also know how many of their anxiety triggers manifest. This type of information is invaluable.
Providing your child’s therapist with a list of about 10 situations with a range of values, prioritizing the highest anxiety level can help the therapist become quickly attuned to your child’s fears and anxiety levels. Throughout the exposure therapy process, it’s important to be positive and encouraging, without being critical or punitive if your child happens to backslide from time to time. As a parent, it’s best to think of yourself as a coach or cheerleader.
As your child progresses through greater and greater hierarchies, their therapist can help you find ways to increase your presence in your child’s exposure therapy process.