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Avoiding fears makes kids more anxious later in life, study finds

Researchers discovered that children who stayed away from things they were afraid of were more likely to have clinical anxiety.


When a child is scared of dogs, strangers or grandma's creepy basement, it's natural for a parent to shield him or her from the object of that fear.

But that instinct is misguided, according to new findings from the Mayo Clinic.

In a study published this month in the journal Behavior Therapy, researchers confirmed that children who avoid scary situations are more likely to have an anxiety disorder later in life.

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The researchers measured anxiety levels in more than 800 children, aged 7 to 18, and assessed their avoidance behaviours through surveys filled out by the children and their parents. The children's form included statements such as, "I avoid things that scare me" and "I ask someone else to do them for me."

In follow-up assessments about a year later, the researchers discovered that the children who stayed away from things they were afraid of were more likely to have clinical anxiety.

Avoidance is harmful over the long term because it keeps children from learning that a situation may not have been as bad as they thought, said lead author Stephen Whiteside, a pediatric psychologist with the Mayo Clinic Children's Center. Moreover, "It prevents us from learning that we actually can handle that challenging situation, that we can handle feeling anxious."

Although fears, worries and shyness are normal in people, Whiteside said, anxiety becomes a disorder when it is either very distressing to the child or parents, or is getting in the way of performing normal daily activities. But Whiteside estimated that only 30 per cent of children with anxiety get help.

A recent survey conducted by the Toronto District School Board suggests that Canadian teens are suffering from high levels of anxiety. In a questionnaire completed by nearly 103,000 students, three-quarters of high-school students said they're worried about the future, more than half said worrying causes them to lose sleep and almost one in three said they feel like crying.

Whiteside noted that cognitive behaviour therapy, which focuses on decreasing avoidance behaviours, is an effective intervention for anxiety.

The therapy works by exposing children to things they are scared of and helping them gradually face their fears, Whiteside said. If a child is afraid of dogs, for example, the therapist might bring a dog into the session and slowly encourage the child to spend time with it.

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In the Mayo Clinic study, 25 children with anxiety disorders received seven sessions of cognitive behaviour therapy over seven to nine weeks. By the end of the study period, the avoidance scores from surveys of their parents declined by half.

Previous studies have shown that parents of anxious children often suffer from anxiety themselves, and are more likely to be more protective with their kids. "In many cases," Whiteside said, "anxious parents benefit from their children's therapy sessions, too."

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