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When anxiety attacks

Online program aimed at helping parents deal with children's fears and apprehensions

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Online program aimed at helping parents deal with children’s fears and apprehensions

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Online program aimed at helping parents deal with children’s fears and apprehensions

Donna Hornick knew it wasn't normal for her five-year-old daughter, Breanna, to constantly scream and sob.

The little girl was anxious about so many things.

"She was really clingy. She cried at everything," recalls the library co-ordinator at the Mental Health Education Resource Centre.

She sought help from a pediatrician, teachers and friends. She didn't get far.

"I was always told... I'm spoiling her."

Hornick eventually attended a conference about kids' anxiety disorders, bought a self-help book and tried to educate herself about the problem.

Nearly two decades later, the Winnipegger is happy to hear about a new web-based program to help parents deal with their children's anxiety. She wishes it had been around when she was a struggling mother.

"That would have been amazing," she says. "It should be brought into the schools as well."

It will be, according to Dr. John Walker, the University of Manitoba professor and clinical psychologist who helped develop the Internet program.

It's aimed at parents of kids aged three to 12 and is set to roll out in late fall, says Walker, director of the anxiety disorders program at St. Boniface General Hospital.

He says there are other web-based tools designed for kids to relieve their anxiety, but this one is unique and is believed to be the first of its kind, he says.

"It focuses on helping the parent to help the child, so it comes at the problem differently," says Walker, co-author of Treating Health Anxiety and Fear of Death and Triumph over Shyness: Conquering Social Anxiety.

"We've used books over the years for parents and they are well-received. The website has its advantages in that you can do a lot more customizing -- put more information in. And parents can choose the topics and modules that fit with their situation."

Walker, a former school psychologist, says the program took him and his colleagues six to eight years to develop and parents are still testing it. Videos and other multimedia will be added in the future.

He hopes schools will alert all parents about the free program when it goes live.

Topics covered include bedtime battles, screen time, motivating your child and facing fears.

Walker hopes his web invention will help kids on waiting lists to see an anxiety-disorders specialist.

The average wait time for such Manitoba kids is one year, he says.

It's not unusual for children to have some degree of anxiety, says the psychologist, who treats children and adults. "Parents are often quite disconcerted when kids start to ask about death and dying at about five or six or seven. They don't know that's normal."

But one in 10 children suffers from so much anxiety it interferes with his or her everyday life.

"Every grade level right down to kindergarten," says Walker, noting that difficult family situations such as divorce or the death of a loved one -- combined with violence at home, violence in the media and parental influence -- also play a role.

He also believes genetics have a significant role in childhood anxiety.

"Some of the kids we see are just wired to be anxious," he says.

But just because a kid's anxiety might be genetic doesn't mean it can't be changed, he says.

"If you get help early on -- for the parents, especially -- often it helps the child function much better."

What does someone so young have to worry about?

One of Walker's young patients couldn't bear to go outside in the summer out of a fear of bugs, while others fear their parents will die.

Separation anxiety might be common in young children who cry and fuss when going to daycare. Older children who have the same fear of separation from parents often hate going to camp, sleeping over at a friend's place or even going off to school in the morning.

 

Walker sees social anxiety in children as young as toddlers. These kids have a fear of joining other kids at recess or playtime. Older kids with the same anxieties might have trouble making friends.

"Right from early life, there are differences in people in how sociable they are. That tends to stabilize around age four or so," he says.

Adding to social anxiety is kids' preoccupation with the Internet and computer games, he noted.

"I think that may have an impact on things like overcoming social fears. We're quite concerned about that."

Walker doesn't believe kids are more anxious now than they were 20 or 30 years ago, but these days the issue is better understood along with the impact of the problem: kids who are left with untreated anxiety are more likely to do poorly in school and grow up with lingering anxieties, even substance abuse problems, he says.

A gold-standard technique in treating anxiety is helping the child to confront fears, but it's important not to force the issue.

"If the child has fears related about learning to swim and putting their face in the water, break that down into small steps," says Walker, who also urges parents to reward the child with a special treat such as spending time together doing a favourite activity. He also notes that practising those small steps often is important in helping kids overcome fears.

What's the motivation behind Walker's quest to help kids overcome anxiety? It's his adult patients -- many of whom come in with anxieties they have suffered since childhood.

"They had suffered for so long with a problem that could have been helped much more quickly at an early age. I really wanted to put my efforts into work that could help young people get the best start in life," he says.

Walker -- along with other experts -- will speak about childhood anxiety on Sept. 17 at 7 p.m. at McNally Robinson. To reserve a seat, email research_Communications@umanitoba.ca. Or phone 204-474-6689.

 

Have a story idea you'd like Shamona to write about? Contact her at shamona.harnett@yahoo.com.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 16, 2013 D1

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