The Benefits of Exposure Therapy for Your Child - By Guest Author Sarah Peritz
Exposure therapy is a form of treatment under the umbrella of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) that is implemented to reduce fears and worries. Exposure therapy typically operates under the idea that to eliminate anxiety surrounding a particular thing, the best thing we can do is expose ourselves to it (APA). This may sound counterproductive; why would we want to expose our little ones to the things that give them the most anxiety? Research indicates that although it is easier in the short term to allow children to avoid their anxieties and worries, it can strengthen the fears they have in the long term (APA). It can bring ease and relief to us as parents to prevent our little ones from combating their fears and worries, as our number one job is wanting to make sure our children are always safe. However, through exposing your child slowly, carefully, and consensually to their fears, CBT will actually help to get rid of the fear and anxiety that they have been avoiding and combating for so long.
Let’s look at the science a bit more! As children, our brains were rapidly developing and so much of our environment was changing at different times. The same is occurring with your child at this moment. Parts of their brains that control emotion, fear, and reasoning are still in the early stages of development (Koslowitz, 2020). What does this mean to us? First, it means that our little ones may not be able to accurately depict certain cues for fear and anxiety due to their stage in brain development. Second, children with higher anxiety levels may experience higher activation in the fear part of their brain, called the amygdala, more than other children do (Reinecke et al., 2018). Therefore, if a child has higher activation of fear and the reasoning and emotional regulation parts of their brain are still developing, one can understand why some things may be really scary for them! By exposing your child to the thing that causes high activation in the amygdala, we can break the behavioral pattern of associating this item with fear while creating new associations that are more positive or neutral. We do this by creating a safe, fun, and fulfilling environment for your child where we can discuss with them what their fears are, how they would rate that fear, and how we can gradually face them together as a team.
If your child is stuck in this cycle of fear and anxiety, please know that exposures are an effective and efficacious way to break this cycle while also instilling bravery, confidence, and hope.
About the Author: Sarah Peritz is a summer intern at the Center for CBT and a second year doctoral student in Clinical Psychology at Lasalle University. She is a member of the Association of Neuropsychology Students & Trainees, as well as the Society for Clinical Neuropsychology.
APA. (2021). What Is Exposure Therapy? Apa.org. https://www.apa.org/ptsd-guideline/patients-and-families/exposure-therapy#:~:text=Extinction%3A%20Exposure%20can%20help%20weaken
Bubrick, J. (n.d.). Behavioral Treatment for Kids With Anxiety. Child Mind Institute. https://childmind.org/article/behavioral-treatment-kids-anxiety/#:~:text=CBT%20helps%20kids%20stop%20avoiding
Koslowitz, R. (2020, May 4). Are Anxious Kids’ Brains Wired Differently? | Psychology Today. Www.psychologytoday.com. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/targeted-parenting/202005/are-anxious-kids-brains-wired-differently#:~:text=Children%20with%20high%20levels%20of
Reinecke, A., Thilo, K.V., Croft, A. et al. Early effects of exposure-based cognitive behaviour therapy on the neural correlates of anxiety. Transl Psychiatry 8, 225 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41398-018-0277-5
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