New Hopes for Childhood Anxiety

Anxiety in children treatments expand

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

Anxiety is often  thought of as being tied to the stressful ways of modern adult life, but many anxiety disorders can first show up in childhood or adolescence. New research is exploring possible treatment for youth suffering from anxiety and methods to spot signs of the disorder at the earliest possible age.

Anxiety disorders, which the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) describes as an “excessive, irrational dread of everyday situations” can include social phobia, obsessive compulsive disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder, among others. NIMH reports that an estimated 8% of 13-18 year-olds have an anxiety disorder, with symptoms frequently beginning to develop at age six.

Various studies, including the Child/Adolescent Anxiety Multimodal Study (CAMS), have shown that cognitive behavioral therapy can be very effective in treating children with anxiety, in some cases, even more so than pharmaceutical medication. However, only 18% of the teens estimated to have an anxiety disorder have received any health care, a fact that is motivating new research into affordable and accessible treatment options.

Computer-Based Treatment Shows Promise

Attention Bias Modification (ABM) is a treatment being developed from the idea that people suffering from an anxiety disorder unconsciously devote more attention to any potential threats than does the normal person. A new computer-based treatment uses this knowledge to train patients to take attention away from threats in an attempt to lesson anxious behavior.

The Tel Aviv University study testing this ABM computer treatment examined 40 eight- to fourteen-year-old children with anxiety disorders. Though the sample size was small, 1,920 total trials were completed and significant results were found.

After participating in treatments with ABM (involving identifying dots near threatening and/or neutral faces on a screen), the number of anxiety symptoms and their severity were significantly reduced in patients, showing that computer-based ABM treatment might be effective in treating anxiety in children.

NIMH author Daniel Pine suggests that this is due to ABM’s focus on attention and repetition, key factors in anxiety disorders, saying “We know from neuroscience that if you want to change behaviors that happen very quickly, you have to practice. You can’t just tell someone how to drive, or throw a ball. You have to practice,”

Though research on a larger-scale is necessary, this study shows hope for the future. If proven successful in larger trials, the treatment could provide a great option for providing treatment to children suffering from anxiety. According to NIHM, “The approach requires no medication and in practical terms, the computer-based nature of ABM lends itself to large-scale dissemination, in a medium children are comfortable with.”

Early Detection

If, as NIMH reports, anxiety symptoms commonly begin around age six, methods for detecting signs of the disorder in children this age and younger should be improved along with subsequent treatments.

Lynn Miller, PhD, from the University of British Columbia is promoting a screening method for future anxiety disorders aimed at kindergarten-aged children. The test, which consists of only two questions, attempts to measure likelihood of the development of anxiety issues by asking parents about their children’s shyness, anxiety and worrying.

In a study of 200 kindergartners, the two questions, “Is your child more shy or anxious than other children his or her age?” and “Is your child more worried than other children his or her age?” were reportedly 85% effective at determining subjects who would be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder in a clinical setting.

According to Miller, "We don't talk about mental health disorders in children of this age but it is the best time to intervene and prevent future problems. Anxiety has tendency to masquerade as other things - children who are anxious don't have to suffer."

Miller advocates a four-step method to treating anxiety in children, in which children are taught to identify anxious feelings, given various coping methods, instructed in evaluating triggers for their anxiety, and finally take steps to face those fears.

Fortunately, it is widely agreed upon that there are various effective therapies available for anxiety disorders. This new research into identifying anxiety earlier and computer-based Attention Bias Modification treatment could potentially help widen the gap between the large number of children with anxiety, and the small percentage currently receiving treatment.

Review Date: 
May 3, 2012