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Research has taught us much about the causes for anxiety disorders. If you ask your therapist or doctor what the causes for anxiety disorders are, the answer will often depend on what their therapeutic “orientation” is. Orientation is influenced by the schooling the professional received, where they have worked, and what their personal belief system is. Essentially that means every professional you go to could potentially tell you something different about what the causes of the anxiety disorders is in your child.
Thankfully, these days, most therapists or doctors take a combined or holistic approach. We know that there is more than just one cause for anxiety disorder. It is important to examine all the different issues that may be contributing to your child’s anxiety (or your own).
Evidenced- based practice is a movement in our profession to choose to do things based on what the research says works best. Every day we are learning more about the cause for anxiety disorder and are better equipped to choose a anxiety treatment that works. Historically, as a profession, mental health providers have not always done things because of research. Part of the reason is there are a lot of things we do to work with anxiety that don’t easily lend themselves to research. Many people gravitate towards a particular therapist or theory because it makes sense for their child or themself. It is important to be informed about what we know works for anxiety treatment, but equally important to feel that the help or advice you are receiving makes sense for you.
It is important to understand what we believe the causes of anxiety disorders are because the solutions flow directly out of those causes. Each section below will briefly demonstrate how the theory is connected to the treatment solution.
Below are some of the basic theories about the cause for anxiety disorder.
Biological Theories- Genetics and Temperament
Professionals who believe in biological theories think that the causes for anxiety disorders can be explained by a child or adult’s innate temperament or genetic coding. Really, what it means is, you just came out that way at birth. Biological theorists often believe there is a chemical imbalance in the nervous or endocrine system and therefore the primary choice of child anxiety treatment is medication.
What do we really know about the biological contributions to anxiety? We know that there is a genetic component, and that in some disorders like OCD or panic disorder there is a stronger genetic link than for other anxiety disorders. We also know that in certain cases there are medications that are helpful for anxiety treatment.
We don’t need research to know that temperament is a real phenomenon. Any parent with more than one child knows how different they were even at birth. Each child seems to be born with a different personality that is recognizable pretty early on.
Professionals who have a family system orientation believe it is the emotional climate of the family that causes anxiety. These professionals may think child anxiety is caused by you acting anxious in front of your child, or some unhealthy thing that’s going on in your family.
Is it true that family systems can be a cause for anxiety disorder?
Research suggests that family dynamics definitely can contribute to child anxiety. In my experience this is definitely a contributing factor. In these instances treatment must focus on helping you and other family members to modify your behavior or to help you and your family modify its structure or roles. Family therapists will choose family therapy as the medium for child anxiety treatment.
Stuffing Down Painful Things
Professionals who have a psychoanalytic orientation believe that some problems in early upbringing cause or are causing the anxiety. Painful memories and feelings get stuck and manifest themselves as anxiety. Essentially anxiety has to do with this painful unconscious stuff we don’t want to think about.
In my experience it is also true that this can be a contributing factor in anxiety. For example trauma very often causes a whole array of anxiety disorders. The solution here is to figure out where it is originating from through talking about family history and relationships.
If your therapist sees your child’s anxiety as originating here, they will choose a child anxiety treatment such as psychoanalytic play therapy, which is essentially a non- directive form of therapy created to help children get these issues out through their play. If you are an adult seeing a therapist of this orientation, you will spend a lot of time talking about your childhood.
Early Bonding in Infancy- a Good Relationship with Mom
Loss and attachment theorists believe that anxiety is rooted in a disturbed attachment with the mother during infancy. Their solution is to strengthen that bond and create trust and stability with the primary caregiver. This kind of child anxiety treatment could occur in family therapy or in joint sessions with some time being spent with the child, some with the parent and some with both.
Anxiety is Learned
Behavioral learning theorists believe anxiety is learned and reinforced. To ease your child’s anxiety, you have to stop or change the things that are reinforcing it. Their solution is to make specific changes in how we react to the child.
Cognitive behaviorists believe that anxiety is caused by a variety of things, including how the child thinks about things. The child’s thoughts and feelings are linked to the behaviors, so the solution is to change the child’s thoughts and feelings, thus changing his behaviors.
Child anxiety treatment from a cognitive behavioral framework is the best researched. We know that the kinds of interventions this theory lends itself to have been demonstrated to work in many situations, with different anxiety disorders over and over. Therapy may occur in split sessions, or joint sessions with a focus on teaching new skills to the child which are later practiced with the parent. Cognitive behavioral therapists very often include a component designed to help the child be aware of and cope with the actual physical reaction in their body as well.
Before considering any of the above issues as contributing to your child’s anxiety, it is important to take your child to a doctor. There is always the possibility that there are medical issues that are contributing cause for anxiety disorder. Allergies and diet may contribute to anxiety, as well as problems with the thyroid, diabetes, asthma medications, and other issues.
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