Avoiding Scary Situations May Increase Children’s Anxiety

Do you try to avoid scary situations or are you the kind of person who thinks we need to confront our fears to get over them. If you’re a confronter, a new study from the mayo Clinic is backing you up. Turns out that kids who avoid scary situations are more likely to suffer from anxiety a year later than kids who are slowly exposed to whatever it is that they’re afraid of.


“That was consistent with the model of how anxiety disorders develop,” said Stephen Whiteside, the study’s lead author and a pediatric psychologist with the Mayo Clinic Children’s Center. “Kids who avoid fearful situations don’t have the opportunity to face their fears and don’t learn that their fears are manageable.”

Whiteside and his colleagues—who tracked more than 800 7-18-year olds—created two surveys, which they did at the beginning and the end of the year-long study: one in which parents assess their children, the other for children to assess themselves. Both asked how children tend to deal with scary situations. For example, the parents were asked, “When your child is scared or worried about something, does he or she ask to do it later?” And children were asked to agree or disagree with statements like: “When I feel scared or worried about something, I try not to go near it.”

The questionnaires were remarkably accurate in predicting whether children would develop anxiety. Those who were scary situation avoiders at the beginning of the study were more anxious than those who didn’t avoid. There were exceptions, though. 25 of the kids who scored high on anxiety at the beginning got “cognitive behavior therapy,” which tries to patients overcome avoidance anxiety by gradually exposing them to situations that cause fear. For those kids, their avoidance scores at the end of the study had dropped by half.

“This new approach may enable us to identify kids who are at risk for an anxiety disorder,” said Whiteside in a Mayo Clinic press release. “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.”
The study was published in the journal Behavior Therapy.

Whatcha think?