Parental training on mental health

In this photo, the Jamie Homero Arjona building – which houses UConn's Counseling and Mental Health Services – is seen. (File photo/The Daily Campus)

In this photo, the Jamie Homero Arjona building – which houses UConn's Counseling and Mental Health Services – is seen. (File photo/The Daily Campus)

When a child is dealing with difficulties in handling day-to-day activities, the question arises as to whether the child is struggling with a specific emotional or mental disorder. Anxiety Disorder is a broad term to describe a mental illness that can sometimes manifest as irrational fears, excessive worrying and feelings of impending doom. Anxiety disorders can limit the child's ability to function adequately and progress in life. In these cases, the entire family feels the impact. Some parents or guardians take a very hands-on approach, rushing to their child’s side whenever signs of struggle appear. Others choose to ignore the symptoms, reacting by instructing their child to “stop seeking attention” or “toughen up.” However, neither approach is very effective for helping a child cope with their condition. It is not the parents’ fault that their child is suffering, and although many parents want to help, they often do not know how. New research proposes that education targeting anxious children’s parents may prove most effective in minimizing childhood anxiety. 

It is hard for most parents to see their children suffer and managing a child’s anxiety disorder is not an easy task. Thus, when a child’s anxiety symptoms start to interfere with daily activities as simple as sleeping alone or as difficult as starting at a new school, many parents’ immediate response is to remain by their child’s side through it all. Parents will allow said child to sleep in their bed or miss school, enforcing the child's maladaptive wish to avoid participating in different activities. While well-intentioned parents believe that they are simply alleviating their child’s pain, the opposite is more often true. Children with anxiety disorders learn that they cannot handle their fears on their own and begin to rely heavily on their parents for support. This can lead to worsened anxiety during critical periods of development and can linger throughout adulthood.

Due to the still-prevalent stigma surrounding mental health issues, some other parents may be unwilling to accept that their child does indeed have some sort of anxiety disorder. Although they may be as equally well-meant as those previously mentioned, these parents can turn to the opposite extreme and dismiss their child’s anxious thoughts as an overreaction. By invalidating their child’s fears, they may therefore unintentionally cause their child to feel hopeless and misunderstood. 

Parenting methods have profound effects on the health and well-being of children, so it is no surprise that uninformed parents caring for a child with a mental illness may contribute to the exacerbation of the condition. Parents are not to blame for having their child’s best interests at heart, but deliberate changes to parenting style based on well-studied psychological and therapeutic techniques may provide a more tangible effect on improving a child’s mental illness.

According to Eli Lebowitz, a Yale School of Medicine psychologist, the key is to provide counseling sessions to parents to educate them on a proper response to a child’s anxiety disorder. Presently, anxious children themselves are the typical subjects of mental health counseling and behavioral therapy. However, some young children with anxiety are resistant to treatment. Because children can struggle to consciously change their pattern of thinking, this indirect method may be more practical. Hence, teaching a parent who is readily available to comfort and encourage the child could be a more appropriate approach.

 

Parental therapy sessions have focused on teaching parents to both verbally acknowledge their children’s anxiety and encourage the children to tackle different situations in an appropriate manner: Quietly and sometimes gradually, but consistently without hesitation or avoidance. Parents are asked to provide affirmation, step back to let the child handle the situation and then express approval and pride. Preliminary results have shown success in reducing the anxiety of participants’ children.

Mental illness is a challenging burden to carry, especially for a child, and oftentimes this weight falls upon the shoulders of the entire family. And, although a family may unfortunately suffer with it together, this also means that they can persevere together. Children and parents do not have to feel as though a mental illness is out of their control. Therapy sessions for parents, led by professional psychotherapists or mental health providers, can equip them with the direct knowledge of how to cater to their child’s needs. Possibly in conjunction with other forms of treatment, this method could therefore reduce symptoms of childhood anxiety.  


Veronica Eskander is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at veronica.eskander@uconn.edu.