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Keeping Anxious Kids From Becoming Anxious Adults

May 2, 2014

We kicked off our May Speak Up for Kids campaign this year with a May Day luncheon focusing on anxiety: living with it, treating it, and being the parents of an anxious child. On the program were two experts in the field—Scott Stossel, the author of My Age of Anxiety, who’s lived with anxiety for 42 years, andDr. Jerry Bubrick, who’s treated many anxious children at the Child Mind Institute. Moderating the conversation was Ali Wentworth, the actor, comic, TV personality and no stranger to anxiety and depression herself (she noted that she spends more money on Zoloft than Barneys).

If you’ve read Stossel’s book, or the excerpt in the Atlantic, you know that one thing that makes him acutely anxious—along with flying, vomiting, and cheese (long story)—is public speaking. Wentworth opened the conversation by asking Stossel if he’d resorted to his usual cocktail of anti-anxiety meds and vodka, a regimen he described in his book, to steel himself for this event. Stossel responded that the three months of publicity he’s done for his book have actually diminished that anxiety. “It’s almost like doing protracted exposure therapy,” he noted. And he’s found that he can get by with less and less medication.

Speaking of exposure therapy—the form of cognitive behavior therapy that Dr. Bubrick described as the gold-standard treatment for anxiety—Stossel also said that when his daughter developed anxiety at age 7, they got her CBT treatment immediately, and it really worked. “It’s a joke in my family,” Stossel said. “She’s now 10, and she’s much better than I am.” He’s become a big believer in early intervention, noting that if he’d been treated as a young child by Dr. Bubrick (who unfortunately was also a young child at that point) he probably would have been a much, much less anxious adult.

Dr. Bubrick explained that parents who want to help kids overcome anxiety need to do the opposite of what seems natural: not reassure them constantly that they’ll be fine, or brush off their anxiety, or avoid things that make them anxious. Instead, they need to validate their worried kids’ feelings, but express confidence that they can manage the anxiety, and help them think of ways to handle what might happen.

And all three speakers emphasized the importance of not hiding problems with mental illness.

Stossel pointed out that it took him four decades before he was able to “come out,” so to speak, by writing his book. Of course, he said, he was quite worried about how the book would be received—how could he not be? “But the incredibly positive response of people coming forward and sharing their stories has been extremely heartening,” he said. “There is real benefit to generating conversation about this stuff. And reducing the stigma can really help.”

Tagged with: Anxiety Disorders