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How parents inadvertently perpetuate their kids’ anxiety

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On March 13, the New York Times’s Upshot published results from a survey on parenting that found that moms and dads are still very involved in aspects of their grown children’s lives.

76 percent of parents “reminded their adult children of deadlines they need to meet, including for schoolwork,” 74 percent “made appointments for them, including doctor’s appointments, 15 percent “called or texted to make sure they did not sleep through a class or test,” while 14 percent “told them which career to pursue.” This kind of parenting can backfire, the article wrote, “by leaving young adults ill-prepared for independent adult life.”

And what about when kids are younger? Having parents that over-accommodate could be perpetuating pre-existing anxiety disorders. In a new study in theJournal of the American Academy of Childhood and Adolescent Psychiatry, researchers found that offering treatment to parents of kids with anxiety disorders was just as helpful as treating the kids themselves—by helping them cool it on certain behaviors.

“Children naturally rely on parents when they are feeling scared and parents naturally want to protect their children and to help them to be safe and to feel good,” says Eli Lebowitz, the associate director of the Anxiety and Mood Disorders Program at the Yale Child Study Center and first author of the study. These over-accommodations could include answering a question reassuringly from a worried child over and over, speaking up for a kid who is socially anxious, taking part in elaborate nighttime rituals, or taking a kid to unnecessary doctor’s appointments because they think they’re sick.

“There are really endless possible examples,” Lebowitz says. “Every child anxiety symptom is likely to have a matching accommodation on the part of the parents. These accommodations are well-intentioned but tend to lead to more anxiety over time and to greater impairment for both the child and the family overall.”

In the study, they randomly assigned children diagnosed with anxiety disorders to receive cognitive-behavioral therapy, and other kids not to have therapy but for their parents to participate in something called “Supportive Parenting for Anxious Childhood Emotions” or SPACE. In SPACE, the parents learned to reduce their accommodations, while still supporting and acknowledging the difficulties their children were facing.

“For example, in the case of the parent who is responding to many repetitive questions throughout the day, the parent may learn to say, ‘I see how anxious you are and I know how hard and uncomfortable that feels for you, but I know that you can be ok and that I am not helping you by answering all these questions, so I am not going to answer anymore,’” Lebowitz tells me.

After 12 weeks, the kids who received therapy themselves had just as much benefit as those who got no treatment, but whose parents did. “That means that children whose parents did SPACE and who never directly met with the therapist felt they had as much benefit as children who met directly with a skilled therapist for 12 sessions,” Lebowitz says.

Since some kids don’t do well in therapy, or find parts of it, like exposure therapy, challenging and scary, knowing that outsourcing treatment to mom and dad can be similarly effective could be a great way to address anxiety disorders early on— before you’re that adult whose mom still makes all their doctors appointments.

People with hard-to-treat depression could one day find success with a new kind of brain stimulation

People with major depressive disorder have usually tried every medication and therapy that’s out there, and have been unable to find relief from their symptoms. After medication, there are newer treatments they can try, including noninvasive brain stimulation, which seeks to change the behavior of the brain from outside the skull using electrodes placed on the scalp.

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