JFS Clinicians Trained in New Treatment for Childhood Anxiety
By Maura Kinney, LCSW and Amanda Mills, LCSW-S
Does your child struggle with anxiety? Do their fears keep them from engaging in life in the ways you might hope for them? Perhaps they struggle with being left alone, going to school in the morning, or falling asleep in their own bed? Shalom Austin Jewish Family Service (JFS) is excited to be offering a new type of therapy to help with this called “SPACE.” SPACE stands for Supportive Parenting for Anxious Childhood Emotions and is an evidence-based practice developed by Dr. Eli Lebowitz through Yale’s Child Guidance Center. SPACE is unique in that, although it treats childhood anxiety, it is a parent-focused intervention.
The parent-focused nature of this treatment is not based on the idea that parents are the cause of their children’s anxious emotions. Rather, it acknowledges the significant power that parents have to intervene in their child’s anxious emotions. To understand this power, we first need to understand a little bit more about anxiety.
Anxiety is a natural human system that exists to alert us to dangerous situations and help us respond to them. Those with anxiety disorders can attest to having an overactive system – one that is hypervigilant, alerting the nervous system to danger even when there is actually none. Because anxiety primarily encourages us to avoid danger, when the overactive alert system senses it, those with anxiety disorders can end up feeling pulled to avoid all sorts of situations necessary for daily life. Unfortunately, when we listen to anxiety, we strengthen the message that we feel better and safer by avoiding possible danger, and the already overactive alert system is further strengthened.
Because children exist within family systems, their pull to avoid what their anxiety tells them is dangerous inherently involves their family. Anxious children try to find ways to avoid their anxiety, often by staying away from situations that make them anxious. This is intuitive, but ends up getting in their way: if the child never faces triggers for their anxiety, they never develop skills to tolerate the anxiety or learn that they can survive these challenging situations. Many times, children with anxiety rely on their parents to help them avoid these challenges, which is what we call ‘family accommodations’ in SPACE. In this context, reducing family accommodations can help the anxious child build their confidence and ability to face difficult things, while also improving the family’s ability to function and move through their daily routine.
Due to this inherently interpersonal nature of child anxiety, SPACE works with parents to identify how and where they are being asked, often unconsciously, to help their child avoid what makes them anxious. Through SPACE, parents learn a new way to support their children – a method that takes seriously the fear their child experiences, while simultaneously building confidence in their ability to face their fears. Clinicians trained in SPACE can work with parents on setting boundaries, reducing the ways the family is pulled into accommodating their child’s anxiety, and increasing their child’s confidence and independence.
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