Anxious parent, anxious child

Children with a parent who has problems with anxiety are at high risk of getting an anxiety disorder themselves. But a small new study suggests that treating parent and child together may help.

What do we know already?

Everyone gets anxious from time to time, but when worry starts to take over your life, it’s called anxiety disorder. It can be very distressing and stops people from living their lives fully. Some people with anxiety disorder also have phobias and get panic attacks.

It’s not surprising that children pick up on a parent’s problems with anxiety. Studies vary, but as many as 65 percent of children with a parent with anxiety disorder will get it too.

This could be due to genetic reasons, or to behaviour learned from parents. But so far there’s been little research into whether this ‘learned’ anxiety can be prevented.

This small new study looked at whether a programme of six to eight sessions of family therapy for parents and children could help. Therapy focused on improved problem-solving skills, education about anxiety disorder, and help for parents to avoid over-protecting their children.

What does the new study say?

One year after the study began, none of the children who’d taken part in the programme had anxiety disorder, compared with 30 percent of children in the group that didn’t take part.

In the group who’d had therapy, the children’s anxiety scores were lower when assessed by therapists and by their parents, although the children themselves didn’t think their own anxiety was less.

How reliable are the findings?

This was a well-run study (a randomised controlled trial) where children were randomly split into two groups, half of whom took part in the programme while the other half were on a waiting list.

But it was pretty small. Only 40 children took part in total, so only 20 actually did the programme. The researchers agree that more work needs to be done, and have started a far bigger study to find out whether these early results stand up.

Where does the study come from?

The study was done by researchers at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, USA. It was published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, which is owned by the American Psychological Association. The study was paid for by the US government’s National Institute of Mental Health.

What does this mean for me?

If you are a parent with anxiety disorder, you’ll probably be concerned about whether your condition might affect your children. Unfortunately, the statistics show that these children are at increased risk of getting anxiety disorder. But this study shows that there may be ways of helping children reduce the risk of getting it.

What should I do now?

If you’re concerned about your child’s levels of anxiety, speak to your doctor. They can talk to your child and check whether he or she is showing signs of anxiety disorder. Although this particular programme is still being tested, there may be other types of therapy that can help.

Ginsburg GG. The Child Anxiety Prevention Study: intervention model and primary outcomes. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 2009; 77: 580–587.

To find out more, see our information on anxiety disorder.
BMJ Group, Tuesday 2 June 2009 00.00 BST
© BMJ Publishing Group Limited (“BMJ Group”) 2009