Children who avoid or flee from worrisome situations are more likely to develop anxiety, according to an analysis of parent and child surveys conducted by Mayo Clinic researchers.
The underlying theory isn't that new, that an absence of risk and challenge in childhood leads to nervousness and anxiety later on. But researchers were nonetheless surprised at the ability of their surveys on "avoidance" to predict which children would develop more anxiety a year later.
The researchers asked parents to respond to questions like "When your child is scared or worried about something, does he or she ask to do it later?" and children to respond to statements like "When I feel scared or worried about something, I try not to go near it." Children who said they avoided scary situations tended to post higher anxiety scores when they were surveyed again 8 to 12 months later. Those was little change in anxiety scores for children who said they didn't avoid situations that made them nervous.
"That was consistent with the model of how anxiety disorders develop," said lead author Stephen Whiteside, a pediatric psychologist with the Mayo Clinic Children's Center. "Kids who avoid fearful situations don't have the opportunity to face their fears and don't learn that their fears are manageable."
The results, based on surveys of nearly 900 children and their parents, were published in a recent edition of the journal Behavior Therapy.
You hear this concern -- in the era of helicopter parenting -- come up frequently and of the need to put some risk-taking opportunities back in play for kids. It was an undercurrent during the discussion to put diving docks back in at Lake Calhoun, for example, two years ago.
Whiteside said the study validates the surveys as effective tools for predicting anxiety in children. The researchers also tracked 25 anxious children and found their avoidance behaviors declined substantially after receiving "exposure therapy." This form of therapy gradually exposes children to things they avoid and helps them manage their fears. The fact that these children were no longer avoiding things as much was a strong indication that they were getting control of their anxiety as well, Whiteside concluded.