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Helping a Child with Anxiety Starts with You

Helping a Child with Anxiety Starts with You

By Amy Neiman, LMSW

We have all experienced the signs of ANXIETY when facing an intimidating or challenging situation:  sweaty hands, heart beating faster or butterflies in the stomach. These feelings are sometimes referred to as “stage fright”, “nerves” or “anticipation.” Scientifically, it is our body’s physical reaction to the stress of the unknown. At the same time our body is physically feeling these changes, our mind is processing as well. It is playing the “what if” game.

                What if I forget what I’m supposed to say in the meeting?

                What if I mess up on my homework?

                What if I say something and everybody laughs at me or looks at me funny?

                What if mom leaves and a ghost takes her away?

Optimally, we can stop and figure out which “what ifs” are likely and which are unlikely to occur. However, every human brain functions differently, so we evaluate these questions and possible scenarios in different ways. We may imagine outcomes that do not occur to others, aka “the ghost!”.  When thoughts like these become persistent, negative and intrusive, we experience anxiety.

For children and adolescents, these imaginary scenarios can grow and become so ingrained in daily life that it feels (both for them and for their parents) as if anxiety is taking over. In 2019, the National Institutes of Health said that 1 in 3 teens aged 13-18 will experience an anxiety disorder, a 20 percent increase over the 2012 report. And this was PRE-PANDEMIC! Whether it is COVID, social media, the internet, over-programming or the many other factors cited for this increase, the pressures of daily life can cause children to lean into their “what ifs” in ways that we as adults may have a difficult time understanding. Our response as parents is naturally wanting to “make it better”, to find a solution that works for our child and helps just get us all through the day. Dr. Eli Lebowitz from the Yale Child Study Center calls these solutions “accommodations”.  He wants us to throw these accommodations out the window, and he has research to show us why we should!

I, along with my CJFS colleague Caleigh Alevy, LMSW, recently had the opportunity to train with Dr. Lebowitz in his model for addressing childhood and adolescent anxiety called SPACE. Now, there were no celestial bodies or beings involved, but I was blown away learning about this new evidence-based technique. SPACE stands for Supportive Parenting for Anxious Childhood Emotions. Yes, it is a mouthful! Thus – SPACE.

We spent 16 hours with Dr. Lebowitz and clinicians around the US and Canada learning about the SPACE model. He called it a paradigm shifting treatment where we work closely with the parents of children and adolescents with anxiety, NOT the children themselves. What? Or maybe, Duh!  When he first started talking, I will admit that I was hesitant. How can you treat a child’s anxiety without treating the child? As the sessions went on, I listened, asked questions and most of all–I learned. By the end of the training, I understood how the SPACE treatment helps parents respond more supportively to their anxious child thus reducing the use of accommodations they make for their child’s symptoms. The end result: Children feel less anxious and function better.

How I wish I had been able to work with someone when my husband and I were struggling with getting my kiddo to sleep in her room at night! Or, wait, when my son was having a difficult time going to school each morning.

So what happens in a SPACE program? Parents meet with a therapist to learn skills and tools that will help them respond to their child’s anxiety. The sessions focus on how parents can better manage their own behaviors, which may feel helpful, especially in the moment, but may be actually reinforcing their child’s anxiety.  

If you are among the many parents living with an anxious child, I encourage you to check out the website and learn about  the research demonstrating the efficacy of SPACE. If you are ready to give it a try, I welcome the opportunity to work with you.

CJFS Counseling now offers SPACE treatment to parents in an individual and/or couple setting and we are exploring interest in a group SPACE program for fall, 2023. To learn more, contact Amy Neiman, or 205.879.3438.