Cognitive behavioural therapy is an effective treatment for anxiety disorders in children and young people; however, many do not benefit. Behavioural exposure appears to be the critical ingredient in the treatment of anxiety disorders. Research with adults has identified innovative strategies to optimise exposure-based treatments, yet it is not clear how to optimise the effects of exposure for children and young people. This review was a preliminary exploration of the association between potential optimisation strategies and treatment procedures and outcomes for the treatment of child anxiety symptoms/disorders. We searched Psych-Info and Medline databases using a systematic search strategy and identified 29 articles. We found preliminary evidence that some specific strategies may enhance the effects of exposure, such as dropping safety behaviours, parents and therapists discouraging avoidance, and the use of homework. However, not one significant finding was replicated by another study for the same timepoint using the same methodology. To a large degree, this lack of replication reflects a limited number of studies combined with a lack of consistency across studies around conceptualisations, methodological approaches, and outcome measures making it difficult to make meaningful comparisons between studies and draw firm conclusions. Examination is needed of a wide range of theoretically-driven potential optimisation strategies using methodologically robust, preclinical studies with children and young people. Furthermore, the methods used in future research must enable comparisons across studies and explore developmental differences in the effects of particular optimisation strategies.
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