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:

  • Phobias
  • 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 mo