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Health Beat: Anxious kids, anxious parents: Local therapist, author to speak at Gibsons

Last modified: 1/19/2014 2:30:27 AM
L ynn Lyons sat in the dimly lit room, knowing that in a few minutes Katie Couric would say her name, the cameras would turn to focus on her face, and she’d be speaking live, in front of a studio audience and millions of TV viewers.

Butterflies doesn’t even begin to cover it.

“My heart was pounding,” she said, laughing, of that day in December when she appeared on Couric’s daytime talk show.

Luckily for Lyons, she’s a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist with a practice in Concord, and she was on the show to discuss Anxious Kids, Anxious Parents, a parenting book she co-wrote last year to help parents learn to break the control anxiety has on their families’ lives.

“The goal for me that day wasn’t to be calm. That wasn’t going to happen, not there. The goal is to anticipate the worry is going to come, but not put it in charge,” Lyons said.

She’s now working on a book for professionals in her field that should be done next year and holding events to promote Anxious Parents, Anxious Kids, including a reading and talk at Gibson’s Bookstore on Main Street in Concord on Thursday.

The book is a follow up to one she and Wilson wrote for kids, called Playing with Anxiety, featuring a 14-year-old narrator who describes her own strategies to handle anxiety on top of the normal troubles of growing up.

When the publisher told the pair he wanted a parenting book as a companion, “It was like running a marathon and being told, ‘Okay, great, now run back.’ ”

But it’s a mission she gladly accepted, seeing for years the anxieties of patients adding up.

In the United States today, as many as 20 percent of young people – between 1 in 8 and 1 in 5 – experience clinically significant anxiety, Lyons said.

Twenty years ago, it was 1 in 20.

“If this is the new normal,” Lyons said, “we’re in trouble.”

I sat down with Lyons to talk about her experience as a therapist and her advice for parents who think their kids are exhibiting concerning levels of anxiety.

Why are more kids experiencing such anxiety today?

It starts with parents. . . . I tell parents, in a way that makes them laugh and relax,

‘whether it’s nature – your genes – or it’s nurture – your parenting – it’s you.”

An anxious parent is six or seven times more likely to raise an anxious child. It’s both genetic and learned. And parents today are having a real hard time letting kids make mistakes, letting them fall down both literally and figuratively.

Why is this a problem?

They have not developed their ability to fail, to screw up, and to figure things out on their own. They cannot tolerate uncertainty; they have to know everything, and they can’t solve problems for themselves. And we know that anxiety in kids is one of the best predictors of depression in adults.

How does anxiety get such strong control over a family?

Whether it’s in a child or an adult, anxiety wants certainty and comfort. Anxiety wants to control the situation, wants to know exactly what is going to happen ahead of time, and can’t handle the unknown.

So it’s main strategy is avoidance, avoiding situations where it won’t have control, avoiding the unknown. And parents will enable this, because it’s easier, and it makes their child calm down.

It works in the short term, but it cements the bad pathways. The child sees that when he avoided the bad situation, the anxiety went away.

Instead, you have to work up to being unsure and uncomfortable on purpose, to see that it’s not the end of the world.

What might be a good first step for a parent who is starting to think their child has signs of anxiety?

The first thing is to know that there are certain anxieties that are normal developmentally.

Kids will go through a period of being afraid of the dark or being hesitant with strangers. School-age kids go through periods of being afraid that their parents might die.

It’s normal for high school kids to stress out about academic performance or what their future might look like.

It’s concerning when they start avoiding activities that would be considered routine or age-appropriate – a child who won’t go to school, doesn’t want to go to birthday parties, refuses to be left in the care of anybody except for a parent, or doesn’t want to participate in activities where she might make a mistake.

The two biggest reasons for parents to see a mental health professional are because of disruptions in sleep and academic performance. Anxiety and worry have been in charge for a long time by that point.

How could a family be hiding a child’s anxiety?

What usually happens if you have an anxious child, you can keep the family going by accommodating anxiety’s demands.

It’s when the demands exceed the families ability to accommodate them, that’s when it becomes a problem. Parents will, over the short term, successfully manage anxiety by changing family plans, doing all sorts of things that keep the child comfortable.

When that is no longer possible, they bring them into treatment.

Is there anything parents can do before that point, then?

If they begin to see signs, they want to resist the really intuitive, natural desire to accommodate the anxiety, to reassure, to make everything okay for your child. Really, you want to resist doing that whether your child is anxious or not.

It’s going to put them at risk for anxiety later on because the skill you want kids to have is being able to step into uncertainty instead of backing away from it.

You want to help them handle the anxiety, handle whatever makes them feel uncomfortable or nervous or scared.

So, can you cure anxiety?

The goal is never to eradicate worry.

People will never be rid of anxiety, but being “cured”means you’ll know what to do when it happens. What we want is for kids to be bored by anxiety.

Anxiety presents as dramatic and complicated and overwhelming but it is really pretty simple.

Once parents and kids understand how it operates and they have some skills, they can really make a big difference in their families.

(Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or 
spalermo@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @SPalermoNews.)


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