CBT helps young children with anxiety disorders

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CBT for the Little Ones Before They Start School

It is quite shocking to think that our children may suffer from anxiety before they have even put pen to paper in a school environment. Like adults, children experience anxiety when faced with problems and social pressures. It is a normal emotion that appears when they are faced with uncertain situations or have to adapt to new environments. But over the last few decades, there has been an increasing trend in young children developing anxiety disorders that adversely affect their daily lives. They find it difficult to cope with stressful events, and have thoughts about “bad” things happening without any justification. By the time these children start school, anxiety has taken control of their social development. If the disorder is not addressed, they will quickly fall behind their fellow students.

Over the last decade or so, therapists have made great strides in treating children with anxiety disorders through a process called Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT). CBT is essentially the process of challenging negative views of self and others and replacing these views with positive ones. The patient learns to recognize negative thoughts and the situations that trigger them. Once they are able to recognize them, they learn to defeat them with positive thoughts and self-talk. Preschool children are able to participate and benefit from CBT just as well as older children.

Taking Charge with Online Technology

A diagnosis of anxiety disorders in young children may be on the rise, but therapists have been looking for ways to use technology to meet this issue head-on. A recent trial was conducted in order to determine how effective internet-based CBT sessions could be for preschoolers with anxiety disorders.  Fifty-two children from the ages of 3-6 were randomly separated into two groups: one that would receive online treatment, and one that would not. The online CBT sessions were parent-focused, meaning that, alongside the therapist, the child’s parents played a significant role teaching the children how to recognize triggers and overcome their anxiety.

Based on the questionnaires parents filled out before, immediately after, and six months after the online treatments, the trial revealed some amazing results. The children that received the internet sessions displayed a significant reduction in the severity in their anxiety diagnosis. Nearly 40% of the children fully overcame their anxiety issues, compared to 26% of those who did not receive the internet sessions. Six months later, the results showed that just over 70% of the children were able to completely overcome their anxiety. The trial’s study concluded that an internet-based CBT program can help children think positively about themselves, others, and the world around them.

Group Therapy

Another alternative to traditional therapist/patient treatment sessions is group therapy. Group therapy is often used to help patients talk through their issues together and help each other overcome them. A recent study was conducted on children between the ages of 7 and 12 who had been diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD). Instead of specifically addressing GAD, the group’s therapy focused on the underlying causes or thoughts that trigger episodes of anxiety. The study showed that after the treatment sessions, 53% of the children no longer suffered from GAD. After three-months, 100% of the children no longer had GAD, and 50% had no anxiety issues at all. Group therapy that targets underlying issues shows potential in combating, and ultimately defeating GAD.

 CBT changes brain patterns

CBT has a positive effect on how children view themselves and the world around them, but it appears to actually change how the brain responds to social situations. A new study was able to show that patients that have undergone CBT treatment for Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) had more activity in several key areas of the brain when reacting to both praise and criticism. Decreased activity was detected in the left posterior superior temporal gyrus (pSTG), the portion of the brain that helps to interpret facial expressions of others, when the patient was exposed to social criticism. The study showed that brain changes produced through CBT resulted in a 24% reduction in social anxiety diagnoses. This bodes well, especially for preschool children, whose brains are far from fully developed.



Holmes et al. The efficacy of a group-based disorder –specific treatment program for childhood GAD – a randomized controlled trial. Behav Res Ther Oct 2014.

Donovan et al. Online CBT for preschool anxiety disorders: a randomized control trial.  Behav Res Ther. Jul 2014.

Goldin et al. Impact of cognitive-behavioral therapy for social anxiety disorder on the neural bases of emotional reactivity to and regulation of social evaluation. Beh Res Ther Nov 2014.


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