Anxiety Symptoms Can Begin in Childhood

Early signs include being easily startled and avoiding new situations

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Prof. Arlene Young

Prof. Arlene Young

Any parent with more than one child knows that their kids are individuals from the start. Some kids are more active, some are quieter. Some enjoy busy, noisy places, while others find them overwhelming. Those temperamental differences are all perfectly normal, but it turns out that some can predict a child who is at higher risk of developing anxiety problems as they grow up.

“Babies who consistently jump at loud sounds and are slow to warm up to or prefer to avoid new people and situations are more likely to have a behaviourally inhibited temperament,” explains psychology professor Arlene Young. “This temperamental style makes them more vulnerable to developing problems with anxiety and even anxiety disorders later in development.” This observation has prompted her to study how these children are different from their peers, and what aspects of their temperaments are factors in becoming more anxious

Studies have found, for example, that when babies with these temperamental traits  are shown both an angry face and a pleasant face, they tended to focus on the angry face. “If you have that bias – to look at the angry face – the environment does seem more threatening, so it is understandable that these children may be more anxious,” says Young. Her studies are also looking at how these children process social information and recognize emotions in themselves and others.

Her interest in understanding anxiety includes helping those who are struggling to deal with it. In a study in collaboration with research partners at the Hospital for Sick Children and Simon Fraser University, Young helped develop a 12-week program for children aged five to seven with anxiety disorders and their parents.

“These little children may not know what the word anxiety means, so we do activities with them such as tracing their bodies on paper and hanging them on the wall, then talking about how anxious situations affect how their bodies feel. Their tummies get upset, for example,” says Young. The program facilitators talk about “sneaky fears that spoil your fun.” Through activities, the children learn strategies to manage their worries, such as “balloon breaths” and thinking logically about whether an imagined catastrophe is really likely to happen.

Another technique that Young teaches is systematic desensitization. If a child is afraid to go on an elevator, for example, the child’s parent might first hold the elevator door open while the child steps in and out. The next step might be to have the child go in the elevator and allow the door to close, but then the parent will push the “door open” button and let the child walk out. “If you try to go too far too fast, you may have to back up a step,” says Young. “But those ‘failures’ can also be good opportunities to practise the skills we’ve taught about coping with anxious feelings.”

This research has demonstrated the effectiveness of the treatment program. The children were assessed before and after completing the program and were compared to another group of anxious children who simply spent time playing with their peers. “We found that the treatment was helpful. In fact, many of the children who went through the program no longer meet the criteria for having an anxiety disorder,” says Young. “We are now following up after a year to see if the benefits continue.”

She’s also planning to develop a modified program that will work for children who have language difficulties, including those who are unable to read. “Many children are struggling with these issues, and the adults around them don’t understand what the problem is,” she says. “They think the child is not listening or not trying, and the child doesn’t know how to express why he’s having trouble.”

This relates to some other areas of interest for Young: reading and language disorders in young children, a topic she explored in both her master’s and doctoral research. Young did her undergraduate studies at the University of Guelph and then attended graduate school in speech language therapy. She continued her education at the University of Waterloo, where she earned a master’s and PhD in clinical psychology.

After graduation she became co-director of the Developmental Neuropsychiatry Clinic in what is now the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. “We dealt with complex cases where children had not only language or developmental problems but also behavioural, social and emotional issues,” she says.

Language difficulties can include speech problems such as stuttering, or more significant issues such as problems understanding what others are saying or expressing themselves. Young joined a research team involved in a large, longitudinal project called the Ottawa Language Study that found that stuttering and other speech problems were less likely to have long-term consequences for children, but difficulties in understanding or expressing ideas often led to ongoing academic, social and emotional issues.

Young accepted a position at Simon Fraser University in 2000, where she continued her research in this area. “Much of my research has looked at what kinds of things are actually helpful for children with early language problems,” she says. “We know that early intervention helps and we now have research to support specific kinds of interventions.”

Now that she has returned to Ontario and U of G, Young is excited about working with students. “I think the best model for research is to involve and train graduate students,” she says. “I have always felt an attachment to the University of Guelph, and the program here is an excellent fit for me. I’m looking forward to enjoying everything that Ontario has to offer – I even bought a pair of cross-country skis.”