By: Ryan Ruth Conway, PsyD
As a child and adolescent psychologist who specializes in treating anxiety, it is very rare that I work solely with the individual. More commonly, in working with anxious youth, I engage the caregivers in treatment as well, as they serve a unique role in helping children better manage their symptoms. Sometimes I even meet with parents without ever seeing their anxious child, usually in situations where children are either very young or having difficulty participating in treatment.
Anxiety is a universal emotion that we all experience, and it can be quite helpful in alerting us to danger. However, some people experience heightened anxiety related to things or situations that do not actually pose a real threat, even though it truly feels that way. There are three parts of anxiety that impact each other – 1) cognitions (worrisome thoughts), 2) feelings (emotions and physiological sensations e.g., racing heart, stomachaches), and 3) behaviors (fight/flight/freeze response e.g., having tantrums, avoidance of anxiety-provoking stimuli).
Children will go to great lengths to find relief from anxiety. One of the typical ways they do so is by avoiding things they find scary. For instance, a child with separation anxiety may decline invitations for sleepovers and/or refuse to go to school. As their “go to” for support, children oftentimes manage anxiety by eliciting their parents to make them feel better. For a child with social anxiety, parents might step in and speak for the child when confronting strangers. When a teenager is facing persistent and obsessive thoughts about germs and cleanliness, parents might wash and re-wash the child’s clothing. For the individual who worries about a bunch of different things, parents might find themselves providing reassurance by answering a lot of their child’s questions or responding to repeated text messages ensuring the parents’ safety.
Anxiety has an interesting way of entangling family members into its “worry web,” and families fall victim to its demands to maintain peace in the household, largely without even realizing they are doing so! We call this parent accommodation, or any actions caregivers take or deliberately do not take because of their child’s anxiety. Accommodation is incredibly common and understandable. Parents will do anything and everything to protect their children and make them feel better. While accommodation might alleviate anxiety symptoms quickly and reduce anxiety in the short-term, unfortunately it is unhelpful in the long-term. Anxiety is tricky – the more parents accommodate, the more the worry web continues to grow, and children end up relying on their parents to bring relief as opposed to learning to manage anxiety on their own.
Last month I had the pleasure of attending a training for the SPACE (Supportive Parenting for Anxious Childhood Emotions) program, an innovative, short-term intervention developed at Yale University’s Child Study Center under the leadership of Dr. Eli Lebowitz, a prominent child therapist, researcher and author. As an empirically-supported treatment, SPACE has been well researched and, in a recent study, shown to be just as effective as individual cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) in treating child and adolescent anxiety (Click here).
SPACE is unique in that the treatment is delivered only to parents. In considering the interpersonal nature of anxiety and different reactions parents can have to their child’s symptoms, it brings caregivers together to send consistent, supportive messages. The aim of SPACE is two-fold. One goal is to help parents respond effectively to their child, in a way that both validates the child’s experience of anxiety and also shows confidence in the child’s ability to tolerate discomfort. Parents also work collaboratively with the therapist to develop a clear plan to take small, gradual steps in reducing accommodations. In addition, parents receive guidance on how to respond to their child’s reactions to these changes. Parents are not viewed as the problem, but rather as part of the solution. The result is a child or teen who can better self-regulate and cope with anxiety independently.
The interested reader can access additional articles about the SPACE program here:
Dr. Conway offers SPACE to parents at NESCA’s Newton location. For caregivers who would like to participate in this treatment or have any questions, feel free to contact Dr. Conway at email@example.com or 617-658-9831.
About the Author:
Ryan Ruth Conway, PsyD, is a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), behavioral interventions and other evidence-based treatments for children, adolescents and young adults who struggle with mood and anxiety disorders as well as behavioral challenges. She also has extensive experience conducting parent training with caregivers of children who present with disruptive behaviors and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Dr. Conway has been trained in a variety of evidence-based treatments, including Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) and Exposure with Response Prevention (ERP). Dr. Conway conducts therapy at NESCA utilizing an individualized approach and tailoring treatments to meet each client’s unique needs and goals. Dr. Conway has a passion for working collaboratively with families and other professionals. She is available for school consultations and provides a collaborative approach for students who engage in school refusal.
Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton and Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 617-658-9800.