While we can't change our genes, this result shows that the interactions between anxious people, like parents and children, are important, and can be modified in ways that are beneficial. SPACE works by focusing on one specific interaction between family members: the changes in behavior parents make when trying to help and protect their children from their fears, which is called “accommodation.”
Families may be making each other anxious out of an overwhelming desire to protect each other.
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There's long been an interest in involving parents in an anxious child's treatment. The problem was, it didn't seem to help. "By and large, those experiments failed to find significant enhancement,” Lebowitz said. “Not to say children didn’t benefit, or parents didn’t benefit, in other ways. But the key question was, Would the child’s anxiety be more improved if you worked closely with the parents? and by and large, the answer was: not really.”Lebowitz is a thin, brown-haired man with glasses with the calming nature of someone who frequently has to explain things to freaked out parents. We're sitting in a sparse room at Yale University's Child Study Center, where parents who start to notice their children acting differently—crying and being scared, refusing to go to school, afraid of being alone—come to seek help.
Once, Ian's mom, Aimee, heard Ian crying and she asked him what was wrong. He was fixated on future events, when he couldn't be sure what would happen. In one case, he was worried about how he didn’t yet know how to swim, but was going to go to his grandma’s house for the summer—a visit that was several months away.“These things weren’t even happening,” Aimee said. “But he was obsessing over it.”Mornings before school started to be difficult. Ian was nervous to go; at school small things would set him off, leaving him in tears. He started needing someone to sit with him while he fell asleep. Aimee and her husband heard about SPACE, and signed up to be part of Lebowitz's trial.SPACE schedules 12 sessions with a parent. Lebowitz has parents list, in detail, all the ways they have started to accommodate their child’s anxiety, by mapping out their whole day, from waking to sleeping, and all the things that are done differently because of their anxiety. He said that parents often don’t realize how many accommodations they’re making.Aimee said that they had been answering all of the questions Ian was asking them, and staying by his side during bedtime to avoid him getting upset. “We just got so used to doing them that we didn’t even really think about it anymore,” Aimee told me. Lebowitz has parents pick one or two big accommodations to focus on, and they come up with a detailed plan for how to stop the accommodation.
We're exerting so much effort to accommodate our anxiety that our surroundings have closed in around us tight.
Lebowitz said that the principles of SPACE work even for older children who still live at home—he's seen parents with children in their later adult years who are unable to gain their independence because of anxiety.Yet, when I recently pushed my sister, who lives at home, to go to therapy, they asked about family history, but no one suggested that perhaps we try putting one of my parents through some sort of treatment first. Lebowitz is hosting SPACE training all over the country, but when I tried to find someone familiar with it in my sister's city, there was no one.“I think that the traditional model of child therapy still is you know, drop your child off to visit, pick them up, take them home, maybe have a quick check-in about what happened in the session,” said Tara Peris, a clinical psychologist at UCLA.Whether or not SPACE becomes mainstream, there are important lessons to take from it, Lebowitz said: Our mental health doesn't exist in a vacuum, but is shaped by others, and the ways we interact with them.Your father or mother didn’t just gift you your fears, neatly packaged up and fully formed, the way they passed on hair color or scoliosis. Rather, via accommodations, their own anxiety might have interacted with your anxiety in real time. This transforms anxiety disorders in a family into a sort of neverending relay race, in which parents and children are running in circles and passing a baton back and forth forever, until someone can break the cycle.My sister and I did get an official diagnosis for our anxiety—obsessive compulsive disorder—but others in my family have not sought treatment. When my sister is talking about things she's anxious about, I now actively try to not rush in and help. I don't try to diffuse the situation, to reassure her. Instead I talk about how she can handle it, and how proud I am of her for doing so. I've noticed that she has started to do the same with me. Whereas we often would talk and relate to each other about the parts of life that scared us, we now text each other about the ways we're conquering those fears.This is the opposite of what I thought would happen. When I first began therapy, and started to get better, I felt like I was leaving my family behind. I was losing the one way we knew how to connect with each other, by being allies and helping each other in a world filled with anxiety landmines. But by recognizing the power we have over each other, and by acknowledging that the nature of that influence can change, I became hopeful that leaving my own anxiety landmines behind might help my family do the same.How we treat each other could ultimately seal our fates. My own behaviors reverberate around me. But they don't have to take the form of accommodations. Instead they can teach my loved ones that they are strong, and don't need another flashlight in the dark.Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.Follow Shayla Love on Twitter .
Our mental health doesn't exist in a vacuum, but is shaped by others, and the ways we interact with them.