A Different Approach to Child Anxiety

I began my career working at a psychiatric hospital and quickly began to focus on helping the children and teenagers admitted during crisis. Over the years, I sat with thousands of kids, learning their stories. I listened to their parents’ and guardians’ concerns and frustrations. I facilitated so many family therapy sessions, some were amazing and some ended with screaming and slamming of doors. Having the same job for such a long time allowed me to see trends and changes. One was the introduction of the i-phone (that is a whole other post). Another trend was the increase in severe anxiety in children that was leading to such extreme behaviors and symptoms that young kids were ending up in the hospital with greater frequency.

Fast forward to me starting my own family and then opening my own practice. Anxious kids have a place in my heart and my professional history, but I wanted to approach their treatment through a different lens. Kids are parts of families. Every family looks different, and nothing shapes a child as much as their family. Parents and guardians are the primary resource for kids as they learn and grow. They are the adults on the scene in real time when kids are making decisions and dealing with challenges, not me. So I’d like to introduce you to S.P.A.C.E., no not the stuff of stars and planets, Supportive Parenting for Anxious Childhood Emotions.

SPACE was developed and throughly researched by Eli Lebowitz out of the Yale Child Studies Center. And if you know me, you know I love empirically validated approaches. Lebowitz had a suspicion that when children have higher than normal experiences of anxiety, well intended parents may have reinforced/cemented that anxiety through their misdirected though well intentioned attempts at support. Distress tolerance and emotional resilience are the essential muscles of emotional health. Often times by either solving the child’s problem themselves, removing the challenge, or becoming entangled in escalating emotions, caregivers have prevented children from exercising these muscles and prevented the growth and strengthening that comes with practice.

SPACE is a targeted approach that works with the parents or caregivers (not the child). We begin by helping adults understand their own vulnerabilities and patterns when interacting with an anxious child. We target specific challenges in the child’s life in a thoughtful way, developing a consistent plan to respond to the child’s anxiety. With that consistent response, the child is then able to find their own strength and ability to do the things that previously induced great anxiety. Over time, momentum builds and kids experience less and less distress and more and more independence and success.

Some of the things I love about SPACE:

  • The kid doesn’t have to agree or change anything
  • By focusing on the parents, we don’t disrupt their academic day
  • Parents feel more freedom and confidence
  • Kids get better

If your family or parents you care about are overwhelmed by the needs of a child with anxiety in their home, send them my way.

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