By Kevin Kelley
Anxiety can be a very debilitating condition, but it’s also very treatable, even in children. That was the message of Dr. Molly McVoy, a psychiatrist at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center who specializes in treating children and adolescents. McVoy spoke at the Oct. 7 Connecting for Kids Speaker Series program at Westlake Porter Public Library.
It’s normal for toddlers to have fears of things like bugs, McVoy said, but such fears pass after two to six months.
“Developing fears is part of normal development,” said McVoy, who received her medical degree from the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine.
The most common age for anxiety disorders to occur in children is around 9 or 10, McVoy said. That’s the age children’s minds begin to contemplate “big thoughts,” such as death, she said.
When children ask questions related to their fears, parents should answer their child’s questions directly, but not offer additional information.
“Kids can handle reality at a developmentally appropriate level,” McVoy said.
Parents commonly make the mistake of either shielding scary things from kids or giving them far too much information about their fears, McVoy said.
McVoy said it’s OK to reassure worried children occasionally. But when a fear takes on a life of its own, parents should stop the reassuring. For example, it’s OK for parents to check for monsters under the the bed once, but not dozens of times, McVoy said.
Parents should not promise their children nothing bad will ever happen to them, McVoy said.
Although anxiety is a normal part of childhood development, problems arise when a child begins obsessing over a fear.
In such a case, McVoy suggests parents designate a particular time (but not right before bed) of the day as “worry time.” During the designated time, children are permitted to ask about and discuss their fears for no more than 20 minutes. But discussion about anxiety should be cut off once the “worry time” ends, McVoy said.
The best treatment for anxiety, McVoy said, is cognitive behavior therapy, which addresses both how one behaves and thinks, which in turn, affects one’s emotions.
For example, if a child is afraid of bugs, the parent should have the child look at pictures of the bugs in a book, McVoy said. By confronting the fear, the child will eventually come to tolerate the fearful situation or feelings, she said.
Forcing a child to confront his or her fears, a practice psychiatrists call “flooding,” will work even if the child resists the practice, McVoy said.
McVoy acknowledged such a technique goes against the grain of today’s culture in which parents tend to be overprotective. Because it’s hard, much patience is required, she said. But by discussing and confronting fears, children can gain some power over them McVoy said.
Medications such as antidepressants can be helpful in treating some cases of childhood anxiety, McVoy said. The medications work by reducing the intensity of a child’s anxiety so cognitive behavior therapy can be successfully applied, she explained.
Connecting for Kids is a local organization for parents who have concerns about their child’s development. The group’s next Speaker Series event, titled “No Body Is Perfect,” will be at 2 p.m. Nov. 12 at Westlake Porter Public Library. Psychologist Kelly Bhatnagar will discuss how to model positive body image behavior and talk to children about weight and wellness. For more information about Connecting for Kids, go to the organization’s website at www.connectingforkids.org.