A new study from the Mayo Clinic has found that children who avoid frightening situations or objects are more likely to suffer from anxiety as adults. The study was conducted by administering short surveys to children and their parents. Prompts were designed to probe children’s avoidant tendencies and included statements such as “When I feel scared or worried about something …” and response options like “I try not to go near it.”
Researchers found that children who avoided the things they were afraid of tended to become more anxious over time. Although the children had not fully developed anxiety disorders, they did have problematic experiences with anxiety. According to study author, Stephen Whisteside who is a pediatric psychologist at the May Clinic Children’s Center, “We found that avoidance predicted future anxiety. Kids who tended to avoid at ‘time one’ also tended to have worse anxiety one year later.”
Whiteside also commented that “Anxiety is a normal part of our experience, we only call it a ‘disorder’ if it is getting in the way and preventing us from doing the things we need or want to do.” Although all children experience some shyness, parents and practitioners should note that avoidant behavior is something beyond that.
Avoidance is when someone tries to distance him or herself from something scary or alarming. He or she may stay away from it, run away upon encountering it, or otherwise stall in confronting it. This new research may provide practitioners a way to measure how much a child is avoiding something.
“Anxiety disorders” is an umbrella term for everything from compulsive eating, to PTSD, to social anxiety. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that as many as 18% of adults have an anxiety disorder, with the average age of onset at just 11 years old. Furthermore, one-quarter of children aged 13 to 18 have an anxiety disorder.
For people working with children, remaining calm and staying patient are the keys to habituating children to new situations and limiting anxiety. Gradual exposure to whatever the source of those negative emotions is important. Although this gentle coaxing may be enough for some children, kids with more severe anxiety may need professional treatment.
The findings have been published in the journal Behavioral Therapy.