Categories: 2012, April
by Mark Katz, PhD
FOR CHILDREN WHOSE ATTENTIONAL
DIFFICULTIES are accompanied by feelings of excessive worry,
fear, and anxiety, the world can feel like a very scary and dangerous
place, for reasons they rarely understand. “The good news,”
says Tamar Chansky, PhD, a nationally known expert in the treatment of
childhood anxiety disorders, “is that children no longer have to
suffer this way. First, though, we need to teach them to be ‘worry
Worry-wise children understand worry, fear, and anxiety in a hopeful new
light. More than that, they’ve learned what it takes to control
their worries, rather than having their worries control them. From whom
did they learn to be worry-wise? From worry-wise parents, teachers, and
other caring adults. And where did they learn to be worry-wise? A
growing number of children are learning to overcome anxiety thanks to a
website with the mission of “transforming the weight of the world
into a world of possibilities.”
Chansky and her colleague, psychologist Lynn Siqueland, created WorryWiseKids.org in 2004. This user-friendly
website provides visitors with tools, resources, and practical
strategies for improving the lives of children who suffer from
anxiety-related disorders. Visitors learn the difference between normal
anxiety—an important warning signal protecting us from
danger—and unrealistically high levels of anxiety occurring in the
absence of danger. The website offers many other helpful features as
Children prone to excessive worry can actually believe danger truly does
lurk behind every corner. We’re all familiar with the intense
emotions we feel when we find ourselves in truly dangerous and
threatening situations. Imagine experiencing the same emotions in
situations far less threatening and dangerous. Such is the plight of
children who worry too much. And, according to Chansky, excessive
worrying actually increases our propensity to worry.
“When it comes to strengthening neural circuitry,” says
Chansky, “our brain operates on the principal of survival of the
busiest. The more we practice a function, the stronger it
becomes.” We can also call upon our thoughts to rewire our brains
in ways that help us rather than hurt us. Says Chansky, “When we
learn to challenge our worrisome and anxious thoughts and replace them
with more realistic ones, we’re allowing our brain to establish a
new map for making these more accurate and less anxious
Ideas for parents
Helping children learn to overcome anxiety begins by first helping the
adults in their lives become worry-wise. Parents who visit the
website can learn creative ways to help highly anxious kids to make
sense of the feelings with which they struggle and that have robbed them
of so many of the everyday fun experiences other children enjoy. Parents
can also learn tips for helping anxious children, such as:
how to keep expectations in line
with those of non-anxious children, while simultaneously approaching
goals at a slower pace when necessary
ways to highlight children’s
strengths by providing jobs and other responsibilities that show them
they have something important to contribute
how to help children learn to do
things on their own
how to help children learn how to
handle manageable amounts of anxiety
The website also offers ideas on how to help brothers and sisters
understand the “no-fault” nature of anxiety. Without better
understanding, it’s common for others in the family to think an
anxious child might somehow enjoy feeling that way.
Ideas for teachers and others
Not all anxious children openly show their emotions, so it can be hard
to know when a highly anxious child is in distress. That’s why
it’s important that other significant adults in a child’s
life, such as teachers, recognize some of the red flags. On the
WorryWiseKids website, teachers can also learn about different
strategies that can help anxiety-prone children enjoy a more emotionally
relaxing school day.
For children meeting eligibility criteria for special education, some
schools now recognize the neurobehavioral underpinnings of
anxiety-related disorders, and are qualifying children under Other
Health Impaired (OHI) eligibility criteria. WorryWiseKids.org provides sample
accommodations, including environmental considerations, alternative
test-taking ideas, a host of strategies to increase positive emotions
and feelings of safety, and ideas for making homework a less stressful
experience for both children and parents.
Other helpful features allow visitors to learn about the most common
causes of anxiety, including the role of genetic predisposition, the
impact of modeling, and the role of environmental triggers.
Easy-to-understand descriptions are given of different anxiety subtypes,
their common warning signs (red flags), and effective treatment
interventions. Subtype descriptions are provided for generalized anxiety
disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, separation anxiety disorder,
panic disorder, social phobia, selective mutism, specific phobias, and
Parents, teachers, healthcare professionals, and others can also
participate in web-based case conferences and see how specific
user-friendly cognitive behavioral strategies are being used to help
children overcome anxiety and obsessive-compulsive symptoms.
According to Chansky, anxiety disorders rank as the most prevalent
psychiatric condition in childhood, affecting over thirteen percent of
the population. This makes anxiety disorders more prevalent than ADHD.
Left untreated, anxiety disorders tend to worsen over time, and can
potentially affect a person’s general health down the road.
Anxiety disorders are also the most prevalent psychiatric condition
among adults, and the majority of adults report that their symptoms
started in childhood. The good news, says Chansky, is that anxiety
disorders are treatable.
Cognitive behavioral therapy
The WorryWiseKids website also provides an easy-to-understand overview
of cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). According to Chansky, CBT is the
treatment of choice for anxiety. Research shows a seventy to eighty
percent positive response rate, with gains maintained over time.
Through CBT, children learn ways to challenge their anxious and
worrisome thoughts and to generate new and more realistic ones. Armed
with their new worry-wise thinking skills, children then practice them
in actual anxiety-evoking situations. They do so one small step at a
time, beginning with the least fearful situations, eventually graduating
to the most fearful ones. Chansky adds that medications can also play an
essential role for some children. The WorryWiseKids website also lists
resources for locating healthcare professionals trained in CBT.
On anxiety in adults:
Tamar Chansky, Freeing Yourself from Anxiety: Four
Simple Steps to Overcome Worry and Create the Life You Want (Da
Larina Kase, Anxious 9 to 5: How to
Beat Worry, Stop Second-Guessing Yourself, and Work with Confidence
(New Harbinger, 2006).
Anthony Rostain, MD, MA, on the years of transition to adulthood
interview by Susan Buningh, MRE
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