An interesting study from the Yale Child Study Center that works with parents instead of their children is being hailed as “an innovative way to address an epidemic of anxiety disorders” in children. While the findings certainly challenge conventional wisdom, they are not all that new. My grandmother and her mother before her would have recognized the principles.
The study followed 124 children ages 7 to 14 diagnosed with anxiety disorders. Researchers randomly assigned them to either cognitive behavioral therapy (“CBT”) for the children, or Supportive Parenting for Anxious Childhood Emotions (“SPACE”) for the parents. SPACE is a parent-based treatment that teaches parents how to encourage their children while reducing accommodation of the child’s anxiety. For example, instead of letting a child with social anxiety avoid new situations, parents learn to say, “I know you are feeling upset, but I also know that you will be OK.” In that group, none of the children spoke to a therapist during the trial. All of the therapy work was with the parents.
The study found that the SPACE therapy worked just as well as CBT, the current gold standard. Furthermore, parents in the SPACE program reported a much better relationship with their children than the CBT group. Ironically, this old-fashioned parenting approach was just as effective as modern therapies and had added benefits.
There may be some lessons that those of us who serve youth can learn. The SPACE program, according to the lead study author Eli Leibowitz, involves much more than just refusing to accommodate a child. “We don’t want the message to be ‘I’m sick of this’ or ‘I’m mad at you’ or ‘You need to suck it up.’ We help parents to respond in a supportive way.” Parents learn to say, essentially, that they believe in their child’s ability to meet and overcome this challenge.
While few of us are qualified to provide therapy to children, we can learn to encourage them in a supportive manner. That encouragement, ironically, may require us to allow them to struggle and find their own way of overcoming their fears. Our job, sometimes, is not to remove obstacles, but to stand on the sidelines and cheer as they conquer them.