Television as Treatment for Anxious Kids

A new study suggests that cartoons can help children deal with pre-surgery anxiety, according to HealthDay.  The study, which was published in a journal called Anesthesia & Analgesia, included 130 children ages 3 to 7, all of whom were already scheduled for routine surgeries.  One third of the children were allowed to watch a favorite cartoon in the waiting room, and another third was allowed to play with a favorite toy.  The final third acted as a control.  In the waiting room, the children in the toy group reported the least amount of anxiety, but in the operating room, “43 percent of children who watched a cartoon had little or no anxiety, compared with 23 percent of those who brought a toy and 7 percent of those who received no special treatment” (Preidt, 2012).

The study did not address children with ongoing or excessive anxiety.  Is TV an appropriate and effective coping tool for anxious children?  Prior to diagnosis, I certainly “self-medicated” with my favorite television shows.  In my most anxious days, late in 2001, I actively scheduled my life around watching as much of my favorite show as possible, because I knew that I felt safest while watching.  However, traditional treatment, as well as age-related emotional development, quickly decreased my reliance on television as treatment.  (Like many New Yorkers, it’s been years since I’ve even had television at home.)

I have worked with students who are highly dependent on TV as a way to regulate emotions and specifically decrease anxiety.  Parents of such students often work with their children’s therapists in order to determine how much TV is acceptable and under what circumstances TV should be allowed.  Unfortunately, it can be difficult or even impossible to enforce TV limitations when an anxious child has no other method of self-soothing.   Parents and even young students typically understand that television is not appropriate during a homeschool session, but I have in the past allowed elementary-level students to use TV to calm themselves, provided they wait until their anxiety begins to fade before beginning to watch.  This helps my students avoid reinforcing their dependence on television as treatment.  The student is allowed to watch for a predetermined amount of time (usually an 11-minute cartoon) regardless of the course of their anxiety.

Many parents are understandably wary of using TV to calm their children.  But parenting, and even childcare, requires extreme flexibility.  Philosophical TV rules are particularly likely to shatter when exposed to reality.  In light of this new study, do you believe that television can be an appropriate and effective emergency “treatment” for anxiety in children?

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2 thoughts on “Television as Treatment for Anxious Kids

  1. I personally think it is a great coping skill! I use it with my 6 year old daughter when she is home – but I still set a limit for example one show and then move on to something else. I encourage her to use other coping skills as well – such as aromatherapy, exercise, reading a book and deep breathing these come in handy when watching TV is not always possible – like at school when she is feeling scared and unheard.

    1. Wow, your daughter is lucky to have a mom who understands so many great techniques for managing anxiety! Limiting TV is important, and it’s absolutely crucial that children learn coping methods for situations when they can’t watch TV. Thanks so much for sharing how you help your daughter.

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