A new Mayo Clinic study discovers children who avoid situations they find scary are likely to have anxiety.
Researchers followed more than 800 children ages 7 to 18 and posit that this may be a new method to measure avoidance behavior in young children.
The study is published in the journal Behavior Therapy.
For the investigation, researchers developed two eight-question surveys: the Children’s Avoidance Measure Parent Report and the Children’s Avoidance Measure Self Report.
The questionnaires ask details about children’s avoidance tendencies, for instance, in addressing parents, “When your child is scared or worried about something, does he or she ask to do it later?”
It also asks children to describe their passive avoidance habits. For example: “When I feel scared or worried about something, I try not to go near it.”
Researchers say a surprising finding was learning that measuring avoidance could also predict children’s development of anxiety.
Children who participated in the study showed stable anxiety scores after a year had passed, but those who described avoidance behaviors at the onset tended to be more anxious a year later.
“This new approach may enable us to identify kids who are at risk for an anxiety disorder,” said lead author Stephen Whiteside, Ph.D., a pediatric psychologist.
“And further, because cognitive behavior therapy focuses on decreasing avoidance behaviors, our approach may also provide a means to evaluate whether current treatment strategies work they we think they do.”
In 25 anxious children surveyed following psychotherapy that slowly exposed children to the situations that caused fear, the avoidance scores from surveys of their parents declined by half.
This likely indicates that part of the reason they’re getting better is that they’re no longer avoiding things, Whiteside said.
“Even after controlling for their baseline anxiety, those who avoided had more anxiety than kids who didn’t avoid,” he said. “That was consistent with the model of how anxiety disorders develop. Kids who avoid fearful situations don’t have the opportunity to face their fears and don’t learn that their fears are manageable.”
Experts say that most children experience fears of one kind or another, but for some children those fears become heightened as part of an anxiety disorder.
When children begin to avoid scary situations, anxiety disorders can become particularly disabling, preventing participation in everyday activities. Even though several methods exist to gauge children’s fearful thinking and symptoms like feeling nervous, clinicians have had few tools until now to measure avoidance behaviors.
Source: Mayo Clinic