New Mayo Clinic research finds that anxiety can grow in children who are permitted to avoid scary situations.
It was always the introduction for Georgiann Steely — the ringing of the doorbell, the approach to the man at the cash register — that made her palms sweat and knees knock.
As a grade-schooler, she avoided these moments — ducking her face into her wavy auburn hair and waiting for her mother to escort her into crowded rooms or order her food. And her mother obliged.
Instinctively protective, Amy Steely figured it was the lesser evil to keep her timid daughter safe and comfortable.
“I was definitely very protective and she will still say I am overprotective,” said Amy, who lives in Rochester, Minn., with her husband, son and daughter, who is now 16. “It’s true. I am.”
The conflict of whether children should be protected from fears or pushed to overcome them is familiar to every parent who has pulled a frightened child back from a diving board or coaxed the kid to plunge. It’s familiar to mental health professionals as well, who have long understood that avoiding fears is the hallmark of clinical anxiety.
But new Mayo Clinic research this month has yielded important insights on “avoidance” behaviors, showing they predict which children are more likely to suffer severe anxiety later on.
Anxiety builds on anxiety
Mayo researchers asked parents how their children responded to challenges. A year later, they found higher anxiety in kids whose parents said they tended to avoid things that scared them.
“Kids who avoided tended to be more anxious, even after controlling for how anxious they were to begin with,” said Stephen Whiteside, director of Mayo’s child and adolescent anxiety disorders program.
The study doesn’t mean that avoidance causes anxiety, or that “helicopter parenting” dooms children to therapy. The origin of anxiety is often hereditary. But doctors said the findings reinforce the need for parents to present their children with opportunities to learn resilience.
“It’s OK for your child to be upset sometimes,” Whiteside said. “It’s valuable for them to struggle and persist. Being a good parent doesn’t mean your child is always happy.”
Understanding the warning signs of anxiety is becoming increasingly important, although it is unclear whether child anxiety is a growing problem. The popular theory is that U.S. children are more stressed these days and that anxiety is on the rise, but there is little data to support that.
The National Institute of Mental Health estimates one in four children ages 13 to 18 have suffered anxiety and one in 20 have suffered severe anxiety.
Avoidance behavior is key to detecting anxiety early when it is most treatable, said Anne Marie Albano, director of the Columbia University Clinic for Anxiety and Related Disorders. “Parents report ... that their kids are not going to school dances or calling up friends. It’s the avoidance that the parent observes that helps a clinician to make a diagnosis.”
The signs that Georgiann had a problem emerged in high school, after her father left the Air Force and the family that had frequently moved settled in Rochester. Georgiann’s shyness had been dismissed at times because she was always the new kid in school. After entering Mayo High School in fall 2011, her freshman year, it became clear her worries were holding her back.
“She would do everything she could not to be involved, but if she was involved, what you would see is somebody very withdrawn, head down, not having eye contact, not wanting to participate,” her mother said.
After seeing Mayo doctors, Georgiann was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. The latter is an umbrella term that includes social phobias, general anxiety or fears of specific things such as enclosed spaces.
Georgiann started attending group therapy and participating in “exposure” therapy in which she was gradually exposed to things that made her anxious. To address her fear of engaging people, she would go into another room and call her therapist, or run to the coffee shop and work up the nerve to buy a cup.