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Very early family-based intervention for anxiety: two case studies with toddlers
  1. Dina R Hirshfeld-Becker1,2,
  2. Aude Henin1,2,
  3. Stephanie J Rapoport1,
  4. Timothy E Wilens2,3 and
  5. Alice S Carter4
  1. 1Child CBT Program, Department of Psychiatry, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
  2. 2Department of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
  3. 3Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Department of Psychiatry, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
  4. 4Department of Psychology, University of Massachusetts Boston, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
  1. Correspondence to Dr Dina R Hirshfeld-Becker; dhirshfeld{at}partners.org

Abstract

Anxiety disorders represent the most common category of psychiatric disorder in children and adolescents and contribute to distress, impairment and dysfunction. Anxiety disorders or their temperamental precursors are often evident in early childhood, and anxiety can impair functioning, even during preschool age and in toddlerhood. A growing number of investigators have shown that anxiety in preschoolers can be treated efficaciously using cognitive–behavioural therapy (CBT) administered either by training the parents to apply CBT strategies with their children or through direct intervention with parents and children. To date, most investigators have drawn the line at offering direct CBT to children under the age of 4. However, since toddlers can also present with impairing symptoms, and since behaviour strategies can be applied in older preschoolers with poor language ability successfully, it ought to be possible to apply CBT for anxiety to younger children as well. We therefore present two cases of very young children with impairing anxiety (ages 26 and 35 months) and illustrate the combination of parent-only and parent–child CBT sessions that comprised their treatment. The treatment was well tolerated by parents and children and showed promise for reducing anxiety symptoms and improving coping skills.

  • childhood anxiety disorders
  • toddlers
  • preschoolers
  • cognitive behavioural therapy
  • parents

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Introduction

Anxiety disorders affect as many as 30% of children and adolescents and contribute to social and academic dysfunction. These disorders or their temperamental precursors1 are often evident in early childhood, with 10% of children ages 2–5 already exhibiting anxiety disorders.2 Anxiety symptoms in toddlerhood3 and preschool age4 show moderate persistence and map on to the corresponding Diagnostic and Statistic Manual anxiety disorders.5 6 Well-meaning parents, particularly those with anxiety disorders themselves, may respond to a child’s distress around separating from parents or being around unfamiliar children by decreasing the child’s exposure to these situations, for example, by not having the child start preschool or by not leaving the child with a childcare provider to go to work or socialise. In the short term, such responses may impair concurrent family function, strain the parent–child relationship, and reduce the child’s opportunity for increased autonomy, learning and social development.7 These avoidant strategies may initiate a trajectory where the child takes part in fewer and fewer activities, leading to social and academic dysfunction.8

Members of our research team began championing the idea of early intervention with young anxious children over two decades ago, with the aim of teaching children and their parents cognitive–behavioural strategies to manage anxiety before their symptoms became too debilitating.8 Although cognitive–behavioural therapy (CBT) has since emerged as the psychosocial treatment of choice for treating and preventing anxiety,9 10 at that time, most protocols that had been empirically tested were aimed at children ages 7 through early adolescence, with only a few enrolling children as young as age 6.11 We developed and tested a parent–child CBT intervention (called ‘Being Brave’) and reported efficacy in children as young as 4 years.12 13 The treatment involved teaching parents about fostering adaptive coping and implementing graduated exposures to feared situations, and modelling how to teach children basic coping skills and conduct exposures with reinforcement. In parallel, a growing number of investigators confirmed that anxiety in preschoolers could be treated efficaciously using CBT administered either by training parents to apply CBT strategies with their children or through direct intervention with children.14 15 Early family-based intervention using cognitive–behavioural strategies was shown to reduce rates of later anxiety and to attenuate the onset of depression in adolescence in girls.16

The question remains as to whether early intervention can be extended even younger. With few exceptions,17 18 most investigators do not offer direct CBT for anxiety to children under age 3 or 4,15 and none to our knowledge have treated anxiety disorders with CBT in children under age 2.7.15 However, we reasoned that since toddlers can also present with impairing symptoms, and since behaviour strategies can be feasibly applied even in preschoolers with poor language ability,19 it ought to be possible to apply family-based CBT for anxiety to toddlers as well. We therefore present two cases of anxious children, ages 26 and 35 months, treated with parent and child CBT.

Methods

Recruitment

Parents of children ages 21–35 months were recruited for a pilot intervention study (a maximum of three cases) using advertisements to the community. To be included, children had to be rated by a parent as above a standard deviation on the Early Childhood Behavior Questionnaire Fear or Shyness Scale20 and could not have global developmental delays, autism spectrum disorder or a primary psychiatric disorder other than anxiety.

Assessment

Children were evaluated for behavioural inhibition using a 45 min observational protocol.21 Parents completed a structured diagnostic interview about the child (Kiddie Schedule for Affective Disorders and Schizophrenia-Present and Lifetime) that has been used with parents of children as young as 2 years;22 23 an adapted Coping Questionnaire,24 in which parents assessed the child’s ability to cope with their six most feared situations; and questionnaires assessing child symptoms (Child Behavior Checklist 1-1/2-5 (CBCL),25 subscales from the Infant Toddler Social Emotional Assessment (ITSEA)26), family function (Family Life Impairment Scale27) and parental stress (Depression Anxiety Stress Scale28). These assessments were repeated following the intervention, with the exception of the behavioural observation for the child initially rated ‘not inhibited’. The clinician rated the global severity of the child’s anxiety on a 7-point severity scale (Clinician Global Impression of Anxiety29) at baseline and rated global severity and improvement of anxiety postintervention. Participant engagement in session and adherence to between-session assignments were rated by the clinician at each visit, and parents completed a post-treatment questionnaire rating the intervention.

Treatment

Children were treated by the first author, a licensed child psychologist, using the ‘Being Brave’ programme.13 It includes six parent-only sessions, eight or more parent–child sessions and a final parent-only session on relapse prevention. An accompanying parent workbook reinforces the information presented. Parent-only sessions focus on factors maintaining anxiety; monitoring the child’s anxious responses and their antecedents and consequences; restructuring parents’ anxious thoughts; identifying helpful/unhelpful responses to child anxiety; modelling adaptive coping; playing with the child in a non-directive way; protecting the child from danger rather than anxiety; using praise to reinforce adaptive coping; and planning and implementing graduated exposure. Child–parent sessions teach the child basic coping skills; and focus on planning, rehearsing and performing exposure exercises, often introduced as games, with immediate reinforcement. All parent–child sessions were preserved from the original protocol, but two sessions teaching the child about the CBT model, relaxation and coping plans were omitted, as were two sessions in which the (older) child does a summary project and celebrates gains. Up to six child–parent sessions focusing on exposure practice were included.

Results

In the cases that follow, identifying details are disguised to protect participants’ privacy. Parents of both children provided written consent for the publication of de-identified case reports.

Case 1

Background information

‘J’ was a 35-month-old girl, the third of three children of married parents. She had congenital medical problems requiring multiple surgeries, and she continued to undergo regular follow-up procedures. J met the criteria for separation anxiety disorder with marked severity, mild social phobia and mild specific phobia. Although she was able to attend her familiar day care if handed directly to a teacher and attend a gymnastics class with a friend while her mother waited in the hall, J showed great distress if apart from her mother at home. If her mother left her sight (eg, to use the bathroom), J would sob, cry and try to open the door to get in. If her mother went out and left her with a family member, J would fuss, cry and try to come along, and would continually ask to video-call her, so her mother would cut her outings short. J also had fears of doctors’ visits, of riding in the car seat, and of walking independently up and down a staircase at home. She would approach new children only with assistance from her mother, and she was afraid to take part in gymnastics performances.

J also had some mood symptoms possibly related to her medical issues. She would intermittently have days when she was much more clingy, had uncharacteristically low energy, would want to be held, and would say ‘ow, ow’ if put down to stand. She also had difficulty staying asleep and would periodically wake up with respiratory difficulties.

Case 2

Background information

‘K’ was a 26-month-old boy, the only child of married parents. He met the criteria for moderate separation anxiety disorder. Although able to go to a day care he had been attending since infancy, he showed distress at drop-off particularly at the start of each week, crying for 15 min. He feared being apart from his mother in the house: he could not tolerate his mother leaving the room even to change clothes and would cry if his mother left the playroom while K played with his father. He would get distressed if his father took him on outings without his mother. He could not be dropped off at a childcare centre at his parents’ gym, leading to their avoiding exercise. He slept in his own crib, rocked to sleep by a parent, but would wake in a panic (alert but distressed) two to three times per month, crying for over an hour until his parents took him into their bed. K also was very particular about where objects were placed in the playroom and would fuss if they were put in the wrong place. He got anxious about deviations in routine (eg, taking a different path on a walk) and had trouble throwing things away (eg, used Band-Aids).

Intervention Feasibility and Outcomes

To demonstrate feasibility, the application of the treatment protocol with both participants is summarised in table 1 . Both participants completed the treatment, in 11 and 10 sessions, respectively. For each, session engagement was rated ‘moderately’ or ‘completely engaged’ at all but one session, and homework adherence was rated as ‘moderate work’ to ‘did everything assigned’ at all but one session.

Table 1

Application of treatment protocol with both participants

The quantitative results of the treatment are presented in table 2. Both children were rated by the clinician as having shown ‘much improvement’ (Clinician Global Impression of Anxiety-Improvement 1 or 2), and both showed changes in quantitative measures of anxiety and family function. In both families, parents rated their satisfaction with the treatment as ‘extremely satisfied’, and felt that they would ‘definitely’ recommend the intervention to a friend. They rated all strategies introduced in the intervention as ‘very-’ or ‘moderately helpful’ and rated the change in their ability to help their child handle anxiety as ‘moderately-’ to ‘very much improved’.

Table 2

Quantitative changes in diagnoses, coping ability, symptoms and family function in both participants

Discussion

These pilot cases demonstrate the feasibility and acceptability of parent–child CBT for toddlers with anxiety disorders. The two participating families completed the treatment protocol and were consistently engaged with in-session exercises and adherent to between-session skills practice. The cases demonstrate that basic coping skills and exposure practice can be conducted with toddlers.

Although efficacy cannot be determined from uncontrolled case studies, the cases did show promising preliminary results. Both children showed a decrease in number of anxiety disorders, both were rated by the clinician (and parents) as either ‘moderately-’ or ‘much improved’ in their overall anxiety, and both showed increases in their parent-rated ability to cope with their most feared situations. Participant 2 improved on all symptom measures as well. Most significantly, his ITSEA general anxiety, separation distress, inhibition to novelty, negative emotionality, compliance and social relatedness scores and his CBCL total score, internalising score and somatic complaints scale score normalised from clinical to non-clinical range. Participant 1 had a more complicated clinical presentation, and whereas her diagnoses and coping scores improved, her parent-rated symptom scores were more mixed, perhaps related to medical problems which impacted sleep. Beyond changes in the children’s behaviour, family life impairment was reduced for both families, and parental stress was decreased out of clinical range for participant 1. Notably, both children also showed gains in areas of competence, including prosocial peer relations and mastery motivation.

This work extends previous research demonstrating that very young children experience impairing levels of anxiety that are amenable to CBT. Previous studies have found that CBT is as efficacious with older preschool-age children with anxiety disorders as it is with school-aged youth,14 15 with approximately two-thirds of treated youth demonstrating clinically significant improvement. There is increasing recognition that anxiety disorders start early in childhood, and that there are significant advantages to intervening proximally to their onset, before anxiety symptoms crystallise and impairment accumulates. For example, one study of 1375 consecutive referrals (mean age 10.7) to a paediatric psychopharmacology clinic found that the median age of onset of a child’s first anxiety disorder was 4 years.30 Children seeking treatment for anxiety often present in middle childhood, for symptoms which began much earlier, exposing the child and family to undue stress for years. By teaching parents and very young children skills to manage anxiety, we hope to give families important tools to navigate the developmental transitions inherent in this age range, and to help children develop a sense of mastery during a critical developmental period. Of course, a larger controlled trial is needed to further evaluate this intervention and its efficacy over time.

Assessing and treating toddlers require a developmentally informed approach. Anxiety and other symptoms may present differently in younger children, and because of limited language and cognitive abstraction capabilities toddlers are not as able to describe their fears and worries. Because some forms of anxiety (eg, separation anxiety, stranger anxiety) are normative, determination of clinically significant levels of anxiety requires an understanding of typical development in toddlerhood and the ability to conduct a detailed assessment with parents and the child using measures normed for this age group (such as the ITSEA and CBCL 1-1/2-5). Similarly, implementing CBT with toddlers and preschoolers requires age-appropriate modifications of empirically supported techniques. The adaptations we used included increased parental involvement in planning exposures, decreased focus on child cognitive restructuring (beyond framing the practice as ‘being brave’ and redirecting the child’s attention to rewarding aspects of the situation), and adaptations to exposure exercises to maximise child participation and motivation (practising at times when the child was rested and not irritable, incorporation of games and reinforcers, and allowing the child maximal choice about when/how to carry out the exposure). The cases we presented demonstrate that existing interventions can be effectively adapted and implemented with children as young as 2 years of age. By sharing the information gleaned from our research, we hope to inform providers who may be less familiar with treating children in this age range and increase their confidence in intervening with very young children.

Acknowledgments

The authors acknowledge Jordan Holmen for assistance with data checking.

References

Dina Hirshfeld-Becker earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and her doctorate in clinical psychology from Boston University, and completed post-doctoral training at Massachusetts General Hospital. Dr Hirshfeld-Becker is currently co-founder and co-director of the Child Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) Program in the Department of Psychiatry at MGH and an associate professor of psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. The Child CBT Program offers short-term empirically supported CBT with youths ages 3-24, research in novel treatment adaptations, and clinical training in CBT, including on-line training courses. She pioneered the development and empirical evaluation of one of the first manualized cognitive-behavioral intervention protocols for anxiety in 4- to 7-year-old children, the “Being Brave” program, and has been exploring its use with children with autism spectrum disorder and with younger toddlers and their parents. Dr Hirshfeld-Becker has published numerous articles, reviews, and chapters. Her main research interests include the etiology, development, and treatment of childhood psychiatric disorders, particularly anxiety disorders, and in the study of early risk factors for these disorders.


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Footnotes

  • Contributors DRHB designed the study with input from ASC, AH and TEW. DRHB developed the intervention and treated the cases, and DRHB, SJR and AH collected, scored, analysed and tabulated the data. DRHB wrote the first draft of the manuscript, SJR drafted parts of the Results section, and AH made significant additions to the Discussion section. AH, ASC and TEW revised the manuscript critically for important intellectual content. DRHB incorporated all of their edits and finalised the document. All authors approved the final version and are accountable for ensuring accuracy and integrity of the work.

  • Funding This work was supported by a private philanthropic donation by Mrs. Eleanor Spencer.

  • Competing interests DRHB and AH receive or have received research funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). ASC reports receipt of royalties from MAPI Research Trust on the sale of the ITSEA, one of the instruments included in the manuscript. TEW receives or has received grant support from the NIH (NIDA), and is or has been a consultant for Alcobra, Neurovance/Otsuka, Ironshore and KemPharm. TEW has published a book, Straight Talk About Psychiatric Medications for Kids (Guilford Press); and co/edited books: ADHD in Adults and Children (Cambridge University Press), Massachusetts General Hospital Comprehensive Clinical Psychiatry (Elsevier), and Massachusetts General Hospital Psychopharmacology and Neurotherapeutics (Elsevier). TEW is co/owner of a copyrighted diagnostic questionnaire (Before School Functioning Questionnaire), and has a licensing agreement with Ironshore (BSFQ Questionnaire). TEW is Chief of the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and (Co)Director of the Center for Addiction Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. He serves as a clinical consultant to the US National Football League (ERM Associates), US Minor/Major League Baseball, Phoenix House/Gavin Foundation and Bay Cove Human Services.

  • Patient consent for publication Parental/guardian consent obtained.

  • Ethics approval All procedures were approved by our hospital’s institutional review board (Partners Human Research Committee, 2018P000376), and parents provided informed consent for themselves and their child.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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