Is anxiety medication for children the only route parents can take to support their child? New evidence suggests that other techniques can be equally effective in relieving the symptoms of anxiety and that these techniques can have an actual effect on how the brain works.
‘I am really stressed’, how many times has someone said that to you in the last month? I bet it is more than once! Stress is viewed as a fact of modern life, in fact, in some people being stressed is viewed as a badge of honour, we even notice that competition can arise to determine who can lay claim to being the most stressed.
Things are a little different if you happen to be a child or teenager though. If a child came up to you and said they were really stressed it’s much more likely that you’ll do some form of double-take and sceptically ask ‘what have you got to be stressed about?’ than engage seriously with them to look at the cause. The view of many adults, looking back to their own childhood through rose-tinted glasses, is that kids have it easy and therefore can’t possibly be stressed and anxious. What they are doing, though, is looking at the child’s stressor as an adult, with years of experience behind them and minimising how serious these ‘minor’ stressors appear to a child.
Anxiety in children and teenagers
It is a disturbing fact that stress and anxiety are challenges that many children and teens face on a daily basis and it affects more of young people than you might think. Figures quoted by the National Institute of Mental Health estimate that 25% of all 13 to 18 year olds will suffer from an anxiety disorder.
Given this, the number of children and teens experiencing lesser degrees of stress or anxiety will be correspondingly higher.
As worrying as this statistic is, it is perhaps more concerning that up to 80 percent of children with diagnosed anxiety disorders do not actually receive any help or guidance on how to cope with their issues, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. One of the reasons for this may be the difficulty adults have in placing themselves in the child’s position and understanding how much certain situations can affect a child. Another reason, though, is that many adults actually don’t know how to help a child, or indeed an adult, who is suffering from stress and anxiety.
Are alternatives to anxiety medication for children effective?
This is unfortunate, especially considering that affordable and effective techniques exist that can help with anxiety and which do not involve medication. For parents of an anxious child one of the big questions remain ‘which techniques actually work’ as there are a large number of different approaches to anxiety treatment. It is clear, that there is a good body of evidence to support the use of cognitive therapies in the treatment of children and teens with anxiety, or an anxiety disorder, and a recent study has shown that such therapies are correlated with actual changes in brain activity.
Researchers at the University of Cincinnati and Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center examined participants between the ages of 9 and 16 who were all diagnosed with anxiety disorders. The study examined the brain function of the participants using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans to determine any changes in brain activity while they underwent a 12-week course of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, and different forms of therapeutic techniques like meditation, yoga, and learning how to pay non-judgmental attention to one’s life. From an outcome perspective, the patients in the study showed a dramatic reduction in anxiety following treatment and, in fact, the more mindfulness the participants practised, the less anxious they reported feeling. This was represented in the fMRI scans by a significant increase in activation of areas of the brain associated with the processing of emotions, specifically the bilateral insula and anterior cingulate cortex.
The study was published in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology and is important as it shows a link between a reported patient outcome, reduction in anxiety, with actual changes in brain activity. The study demonstrates that interventions that do not involve psychoactive drugs can bring about changes in brain function.
The types of therapy used in the study are intended to promote relaxation and to provide a set of tools that can be used when an event or action triggers anxiety. It is important that a variety of tools are available to an individual as each person may find a different tool to be effective for them or differing triggers may require a specific tool.
Naturally, simply presenting such tools to a young person is not going to be sufficient in helping them cope with anxious situations unless the techniques are carried out on a daily basis. It is vital that the skills are practised so that they become ingrained in behaviour and are then brought into use when required. Such tools are, of course, there for life and mastering their use when growing up equips your child for the rest of their life.
In summary, we know that anxiety medication for children can have distinct benefits in certain situations. It is not, however, the only choice available and, it seems, no longer the only option that has a detectable positive effect on brain function. If you are interested in learning more about our specialised online programs for children and teenagers, feel free to browse our website or get in touch to discover more.
By Tina Elven