Yesterday, as part of Speak Up for Kids, Dr. Jerry Bubrick gave a talk at the 92nd St. Y in New York, just as hundreds of other mental health professionals are doing nationwide. Dr. Bubrick, director of the Child Mind Institute’s Anxiety and Mood Disorders Center, focused on the dos and don’ts of childhood anxiety disorders—how do we know when to intervene? And what’s the best way to help a child who is in distress?

Anxiety in children, whatever the cause or specific disorder, is a problem when it impairs a child’s ability to do everyday things, when it is pervasive and out of proportion, when it is difficult for a child to recover from, and particularly when it leads to avoidance. Avoidance can be defined roughly as dramatic changes in habit or routine for the express purpose of skirting anxiety-provoking situations. While we want to temper the impairing effects of an anxiety disorder, Dr. Bubrick told the attendees, anxiety itself is not really the enemy.

“Anxiety is actually a good thing,” Dr. Bubrick said. “It is protective and adaptive, and it helps us be successful. We don’t ever want to ‘cure’ anxiety—we want to manage it.” For parents, teachers, and professionals, that means first thinking about their own responses, and their desire to keep kids from suffering. A parent who shields a child from anxious situations—who enables avoidance—is perfectly understandable, said Dr. Bubrick. “There are good intentions there, but the whole idea of not allowing our kids to feel anxiety actually hurts them more than it helps them.”

Instead, continued Dr. Bubrick, adults need to encourage the development of more functional coping skills. “We don’t want to eliminate the stress; we want to figure out ways to help kids cope with it. We want to reward them for trying to those things they are anxious about, rather than trying to pull them away from them.” One way of encouraging this “engagement” with their anxiety is setting up a reward system that brings kids more frequently into distressing situations with continual support.

“Jump into the water on a cold day, and you feel cold for awhile before you adjust,” Dr. Bubrick said. “The same thing happens with anxiety. If we allow our kids to experience anxiety without pushing it away, without trying to avoid it, they actually learn how to adapt to it and overcome it.”

The audience included concerned parents, mental health professionals, and educators who all had questions for Dr. Bubrick covering a wide variety of subjects. Fretta Reitzes, director, of the 92nd Street Y Goldman Center for Youth & Family, said that the collaboration between professionals and parents and teachers is representative of the Y’s mission and demonstrates why the Y and the Child Mind Institute are a “good fit.” She is happy that we can all work together to “spread the word.”

You can help too! Please join us at our online events this week, and at another 92 Y talk this Thursday evening at 7:30. Dr. Steven Dickstein will address raising children in the digital age in “Parenting 2.0.”