“I’m scared, but I’m safe. I can handle it.”
One way that psychologist Bonnie Zucker helps kids conquer fear and anxiety is by teaching them that those negative emotions don’t have to rule their lives.
“What’s the worst that can happen?,” she asks. “Can you handle it? The answer is always yes.”
“By the way, ‘Can you handle it?’ is not the same as ‘Do you like it?’”
Zucker presented her ideas and techniques for conquering childhood anxiety to parents of kids at Fell’s Point’s New Century School on Wednesday, Nov. 13.
Some of her advice applied to adults as well.
“Do you do yoga?” she asked. “I suggest you learn yoga and call me again in a year. Life will be so much better.”
She said the same about meditation.
Zucker said that it’s hard to diagnose a true anxiety disorder in a child younger than 4 or 5, but one way to distinguish a disorder from general, normal anxiety is that the symptoms of a disorder “cause an impairment in the child’s life.”
The psychologist gave a brief overview of the types of anxiety disorders, such as separation anxiety, specific phobias, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, to name a few. Mostly, she focused on cognitive behavioral therapy—which emphasizes coping strategies and techniques—as a way to beat anxiety.
“Seventy to 90 percent of children will experience either significant improvement or complete remission of symptoms,” she said.
In some cases, Zucker added, the cure is so complete that aspects of a child’s life that didn’t seem to be affected by anxiety nevertheless improve when the specific anxiety is eliminated.
She once met an incredibly confident kid—he took the New York subway alone to meet with her—who had an irrational fear of snakes. Once that fear was conquered, she said, he actually grew even more confident, and she believes he never again face an anxiety disorder.
“Getting over the snakes thing boosted his confidence to the point where he wouldn’t have another episode with something else,” Zucker explained.
Cognitive behavioral therapy, she said, addresses anxiety as it manifests in three areas—in the body, with sweaty palms and an elevated heart rate, for example; in the mind, as worries; and in behavior, as avoidance and nervous actions.
Calm breathing, in which the abdomen expands and contracts, is one way to fight anxiety from the body’s perspective, Zucker said, as are yoga and meditation.
When it comes to thoughts, identifying and correcting thinking errors—”They’re laughing at me” becomes “They could be laughing at anything”—can help alleviate anxiety.
When it comes to behavior, Zucker is a strong advocate of “facing your fears.”
“I think it’s good to force kids, sometimes,” she said, although she added that she prefers a gradual, “ladder” approach. Rather than invite a child with a dog phobia to pet a friendly Rottweiler, she might start by simply having a conversation with the child about dogs. Several steps up the ladder, the child will watch dogs on film. At the very top, the child will meet a friendly dog in a supervised situation.
“I always try to do it gradually,” she said.
During her presentation about childhood anxiety, Zucker emphasized that kids are sometimes simply acting like kids.
“One thing you have to be careful of, is 3- to 4-year-olds can look pretty OCD sometimes,” she said.
Zucker has authored or co-authored several books on children’s psychology, including “Anxiety-Free Kids: An Interactive Guide for Parents & Children,” and “Take Control of OCD: The Ultimate Guide for Kids with OCD.” She is also a panel expert for ParentsAsk.com. She practices at Alvord, Baker & Associates LLC in Rockville, and at the National Center for the Treatment of Phobias, Anxiety and Depression in Washington, D.C.
by Erik Zygmont