STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
For some children with anxiety disorders, treatment means weekly sessions with a therapist. Now a new study suggests parents could also help. Angus Chen explains.
ANGUS CHEN, BYLINE: Last year, Joseph Calise, a 9-year-old boy from Norwalk, Conn., realized that he couldn't be alone. When he took a shower or was in bed at night, Joseph would panic and call for his parents.
JOSEPH CALISE: I would have nightmares. I couldn't think of anything else.
CHEN: These moments terrified him.
JOSEPH: I felt like it would never change.
CHEN: So Joseph's parents, Jessica and Chris Calise, sat outside the bathroom door when he showered and let him sleep in their bed at night.
JESSICA CALISE: I just want him to be happy. I want him to sleep. And if that means that I don't sleep, that's a sacrifice we make.
CHEN: This kind of comforting, something psychologists call accommodation, is an almost universal reaction from parents, says Eli Lebowitz, a psychologist at Yale University,
ELI LEBOWITZ: It is a good and natural and healthy and beautiful thing that parents want to help their children who are struggling with anxiety to feel less afraid.
CHEN: But when children's anxiety is severe enough to keep them from playing with their friends, going to school or falling asleep, Lebowitz says it sets them up for failure.
LEBOWITZ: These accommodations, although well-intentioned, actually lead to more anxiety over time.
CHEN: That's because a child is always relying on their parents, so they never learn to deal with stressful situations on their own. Embedded in that is this message.
LEBOWITZ: You can't cope, and so I will do it for you.
CHEN: So Lebowitz started an experiment to train the parents to react differently to their kids' anxiety. Jessica Calise signed up for those trainings. Once a week, she met for an hour with a therapist. The first thing she learned was to acknowledge what her son Joseph was feeling.
JESSICA CALISE: That's one thing that I would never have said is that, you know, like, I understand that you're feeling nervous or scared.
CHEN: Then, she and her husband learned to support Joseph while he faced his anxiety by himself.
CHRIS CALISE: Go lay in your bed for a little bit. We'll check on you in 10 minutes.
JESSICA CALISE: I know it's scary for you, but I know you can do it. You're going to do great.
CHEN: And finally, they learned to praise Joseph when he got through those 10 long minutes.
JESSICA CALISE: You're a rock star. You did such a great job. You stayed in your bed, and it was OK. Like, you did it.
CHEN: Then, they'd repeat the whole thing every night, gradually extending the time until Joseph could make it to morning by himself. Anne Marie Albano, a psychologist at Columbia University who didn't work on the study, says this helps the child build their confidence and learn to deal with anxiety on their own.
ANNE MARIE ALBANO: So it's helping the child to develop their own coping strategies and, in many ways, to ride whatever wave of anxiety they're having and be really good to themselves.
CHEN: Now, it was a small study. Sixty-four parents whose children had been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder received 12 weeks of this training. When it was done, their children were rescreened, and almost 70 percent of them showed no signs of anxiety. That suggests training for the parents might be as effective as therapy for the kids.
ALBANO: This is much needed research to tell us what to help parents do to break the cycle of anxiety that perpetuates in kids even with the best of treatments.
CHEN: Things have changed a lot for Joseph. He's become more confident and doesn't have any of the anxieties that once kept him up at night.
JESSICA CALISE: We're so proud of him and everything that he's accomplished through this.
CHEN: New fears come up from time to time for Joseph. But with support from his parents, he says he's learning to face those on his own, too.
JOSEPH: I think I'll be OK. I'll just listen to my mom's words.
JOSEPH: And then I'll just try and do it.
CHEN: What if she's not there?
JOSEPH: I'll just think about what she said, and then I'll just do it.
CHEN: And Chris and Jessica Calise say that the process also changed them.
CHRIS CALISE: The way I was brought up was - get over it. You know, you're fine.
CHRIS CALISE: You know, suck it up. But then it - through this process, I've learned that there's other ways to do it.
JESSICA CALISE: It's just that - I think it made us better parents quite honestly.
CHEN: For NPR News, I'm Angus Chen.
(SOUNDBITE OF ETHEREAL GUST'S "KEEP BREATHING")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.