Effective Treatment for Anxiety Disorders and OCD in Kids and Teens

Available with English captions and subtitles in Spanish.

A conversation with Lisa W. Coyne, PhD, and Jeff Szymanski, PhD, on the latest evidence-based treatments for anxiety disorders and OCD.

Treating Anxiety Disorders and OCD in Kids and Teens

The good news about anxiety and OCD challenges in kids and teens is that these conditions are highly treatable with the right approaches.

Watch now to learn more about:

  • Why it’s important to start anxiety treatment early
  • Which treatments are most effective
  • When medication and higher levels of care should be considered

Anxiety and OCD work in similar ways in kids and adults, but they impact the groups differently.

Coyne says: “Kids are embedded in families, so I think it’s really important for clinicians to work with parents as well, regardless of the age of the child.”

According to Coyne, the age of the person experiencing anxiety has definite implications in terms of the effects of the condition over the longer term.

“If it’s untreated for a long time, you can have these cascading effects, where kids are falling further and further away from their academic potential, and they’re missing out on opportunities to learn and develop friendships.”

Because anxiety issues intensify over time, it is much more powerful to start treatment early.

The most effective treatment for changing the way patients behave in the world is exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy. In this form of treatment, trained clinicians help patients gradually approach their fears.

In ERP, clinicians work with patients to develop a hierarchy of feared objects or situations. Over time, the patient confronts their fears and grows more comfortable with the feelings of anxiety that accompany the experience.

“With ERP, we start to interact with the world and the world becomes our teacher,” Szymanski says. “We learn how to become learners and observers of ourselves in our world that isn’t about following rigid rules to stay safe and feel better.”

In addition to outlining exposure treatments, they discuss when medication is an appropriate option for kids and teens who experience anxiety and OCD. They also cover levels of care in treating the conditions, such as when inpatient and residential treatment should be considered.

Coyne and Szymanski also talk about the importance of acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), an exposure-based therapy that reduces avoidance behaviors by focusing on a person’s deeply held values.

“It’s about how you reengage a person in their life in ways that feel meaningful to them, which naturally brings them into contact with stuff they’re scared of,” Coyne says. “So, helping them to continue to engage in that way embeds them in an exposure-based life.”

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Audience Questions

  • Is there such a thing as a gold standard approach to treatment for OCD and anxiety disorders?
  • Are treatment approaches different for children and teens as opposed to adults?
  • What does it mean for a treatment to be “evidence-based?”
  • Can you walk us through a hypothetical scenario for exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy? How does it work?
  • How can you keep children and teens motivated to do the hard work of exposure therapy?
  • How does acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) work? Can it be used in tandem with ERP?
  • How can mindfulness be utilized as a coping skill for anxiety or OCD?
  • How can therapy dogs play a role in treatment?
  • What should we know about the role of medication in the treatment of anxiety and OCD in children and teens?
  • What are some suggestions for helping young people deal with stressors outside of their control such as war, conflict, and climate change?
  • What is the gold standard treatment for panic disorder?
  • How should a clinician handle a situation in which a patient’s biggest fear actually comes true?
  • How is ERP used in patients with OCD with mental compulsions that aren’t always visible?
  • What should we know about levels of care in treatment such as outpatient and inpatient treatment?
  • How can family members play a role in treatment?
  • What sorts of new OCD treatments are on the horizon?
  • What can life look like post-treatment for children and teens with OCD and anxiety?

The information discussed is intended to be educational and should not be used as a substitute for guidance provided by your health care provider. Please consult with your treatment team before making any changes to your care plan.


About Dr. Coyne

Lisa W. Coyne, PhD, is an assistant professor of psychology in the Department of Psychiatry, part-time, at Harvard Medical School, and is a senior clinical consultant at the Child and Adolescent OCD Institute (OCDI Jr.) at McLean Hospital. She is also an associate clinical professor at Suffolk University in Boston, a licensed clinical psychologist, and an internationally recognized acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) trainer.

Dr. Coyne has published numerous peer-reviewed articles and chapters on anxiety, OCD, and parenting. She is the author of “The Joy of Parenting: An Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Guide to Effective Parenting in the Early Years,” a book for parents of young children.

About Dr. Szymanski

Jeff Szymanski, PhD, a clinical psychologist, is the founder of Getting to the Next Level Consulting. Dr. Szymanski has over 25 years of experience in mental health as a clinician, supervisor, trainer, and administrator. He served as the executive director of the International OCD Foundation for 15 years following his role as the director of psychological services at McLean’s OCD Institute.

Dr. Szymanski is a lecturer on psychology in the Department of Psychiatry, part-time, at Harvard Medical School, where he supervises pre-doctoral psychology interns through McLean’s internship program. He is the author of “The Perfectionist’s Handbook,” has appeared in over 150 media stories, and has presented at a multitude of conferences as well as domestic and international trainings.