Making Monsters Go Away

Making Monsters Go Away

LSOE's Dacey says some anxious children need a plan to deal with fears

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

Every child occasionally sees monsters under the beds, or is reluctant to leave his or her mother to go to school.

But what if these fears return every day for six months?

Dismissing a child's recurring anxiety as a passing phase will not solve the problem and will likely make it worse, says Prof. John Dacey (LSOE), a specialist in developmental psychology who has done extensive research on childhood phobias.

In a forthcoming book, Your Anxious Child: How Parents and Teachers Can Relieve Anxiety in Children , Dacey and co-author Lisa Fiore, an LSOE graduate student, present a program of mental and physical exercises designed to control chronic nervousness or fear in youngsters.

"The good news is that although medications can be helpful, studies have shown that about 90 percent of all anxious children can be greatly helped by learning coping skills," said Dacey. "The goal of our book is straightforward: We want to empower you and your child with the coping skills that can help relieve his or her feelings of anxiety."

Co-authors Lisa Fiore and John Dacey: "Studies have shown that about 90 percent of all anxious children can be greatly helped by learning coping skills," said Dacey. "We want to empower you and your child with the coping skills that can help relieve his or her feelings of anxiety."

Dacey is originator of the four-step "COPE" method that teaches children to use self-control to reduce anxiety. The four steps, he said, are to Calm the nervous system, Originate creative plans to relieve anxiety, Persist in the face of obstacles and failure, and Evaluate success to adjust the plan accordingly.

He said the COPE method has been used successfully by several thousand elementary and middle school children across the country over the past 15 years. In a 1995 study of 400 children in four Boston middle schools, those trained in COPE were 40 percent more likely to remain in school two years later than those students not versed in the program.

Between 8 percent and 10 percent of American children and adolescents are seriously troubled by anxiety, now the most prevalent psychiatric diagnosis in those 16 or younger, Dacey said, with more than 3 million children suffering from one or more of eight anxiety disorders. Anxious children are more likely to become depressed and, as teenagers, substance abusers, he said.

Dacey said methods of coping with anxiety include physical relaxation techniques, such as muscle-tensing or controlled breathing, and mental techniques, such as imagining tranquil scenes. The book includes numerous related activities that a parent or teacher can perform with a child.

One approach he has found particularly useful is to have the child create a protective talisman, in the spirit of the St. Christopher medal or the safeguard charms carried through the ages by people ranging from aboriginal tribesmen to B-29 bomber pilots.

"I like the ones you make up yourself," Dacey said. "You could bake something and paint it. You could carve it out of soap. It could be a stone you find on the beach. It could be a religious medal."

An accompanying ceremony is key, he said, in the way that a blessing is required for a religious medal to be effective. "That's where creativity comes in," he said. "You could have the family pass it around and put wishes into it."

An appeal to the spirit is very effective in controlling anxiety, for physiological as well as psychological reasons, Dacey observed. For example, the rosary that Catholics recite under stress not only bolsters the spirit, but offers a repetitive exercise that is in itself calming.

"We're talking about physical symptoms with anxiety," he said. "But we can use the mind to affect the body and use the body to affect the mind."

The child who sees a bogey man under his bed every night for months, said Dacey, "needs a technique. It is because the child is tense that he believes he sees monsters coming after him. So first, you would deal with tension by working on mental techniques. Then you would help him create some talisman to dispel the monsters and keep him safe."

Dacey said he relates to the plight of anxious children because he was one himself. He tells of an attack of nerves during a routine physical in the second grade, when his rapid heartbeat startled the doctor taking his blood pressure. The doctor told him, "'You're just high-wired and you always will be.'"

"I wrote the book because I'm very empathetic with scared kids," said Dacey. "They get to me."

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