Children who avoid situations or objects that frighten them are more likely to have anxiety issues down the road, according to a new Mayo Clinic study.
Researchers developed two short surveys asking children and their parents about their tendency to steer clear of what frightens them. Prompts included statements like, "When I feel scared or worried about something … " with response options such as, "I try not to go near it."
One major discovery in the three-part study was that children who avoided the object of their fear on the initial survey tended to become more anxious.
"We found that avoidance predicted future anxiety," study author Stephen Whiteside, a pediatric psychologist with the Mayo Clinic Children's Center told HuffPost. "Kids who tended to avoid at 'time one' also tended to have worse anxiety one year later."
Most of those children had not developed full-blown anxiety disorders, he explained, but had anxiety that could prove problematic day-to-day. The findings were published in the journal Behavior Therapy this week.
The new study is hardly the first to show that avoidance can reinforce anxiety.
"Avoidance reflects the distance that people create between themselves and the object or situation that they fear," explained Dr. Steven Meyers, a professor of psychology at Roosevelt University and a Chicago-based clinical psychologist who did not work on the Mayo study.
"People do this by simply staying away, fleeing when they encounter the situation, or by delaying or stalling in confronting the feared scenario," he added. What the new study could do, Meyers said, is give doctors and researchers an easy way to determine how much a child is avoiding something.
It helps "estimate fear severity," he explained.
Past National Institute of Mental Health estimates suggest that up to 18 percent of U.S. adults have an anxiety disorder, and that the average age of onset is 11. In addition, one-quarter of 13- to 18-year-olds have an anxiety disorder, a term that encompasses panic and obsessive compulsive disorders, post traumatic stress, social anxiety disorders and more.
"Anxiety is a normal part of our experience," Whiteside said. "We only call it a 'disorder' if it is getting in the way and preventing us from doing the things we need or want to do."
All children experience some shyness, but if a child is avoiding trying out for a team or making new friends, that raises flags.
Prior research cited in the new study found that parents can play a major role in avoidance and anxiety issues. When parents reinforce their child's avoidance, symptoms worsen. Both Whiteside and Meyers acknowledged, however, that parents walk a fine line between letting children stay away from what unnerves them and pushing them too far.
One key, Whiteside said, is for parents to remain patient, warm and calm, even if they get frustrated or angry. Gradual exposure to the source of fear is also important.
"Parents can offer children instructions, encouragement and rewards for their bravery at each step along the way," Meyers said. "Children with more severe anxieties, however, may need the assistance of a professional to assist in this process."