Strategies to Try With Children Who Have Phobias
Phobias often can happen when something that’s normally tame and harmless things suddenly turns into frightening bullies. These things often will take on the power they just don’t deserve and it often just doesn’t seem to make sense. However, the fear is real for the person who has the phobia, especially for children. If your child has a phobia or phobias, there is good news. Fears and phobias in your child is very manageable and if they are given the right guidance with the right strategies, children can actually be empowered to get through their phobias.
What Can Cause Intense Phobias?
Quite often when children have phobias, there generally will be a starting point. This starting point is something that may have happened that made the fear come to life. It could be something that happened to the child, to someone they know, or something they may have heard about or seen in a movie or even seen in the news.
When children suffer from phobias, they will often exhibit a “fight or flight” reaction whenever they are subjected to whatever they fear. This happens because their brains believe that this poses a real threat to them and it’s the raw instinct that kicks in and it causes their intense fear.
Avoidance commonly comes with their phobias and it’s not so much about avoiding the actual thing they fear but trying to avoid the intense and scary fears that come along with the phobia. However, if they continue to avoid what it is they are afraid of it’s only going to cause their feelings to build up ad will, in turn, bring about even more intense emotions and even physical sensations which makes them feel awful.
The thing that was once harmless will now become the “trigger” which then will sound off a warning alarm of bad feelings in their brain and they will do all that they can to avoid whatever it is that they now are afraid of.
Problem With Avoidance
When a child shows extreme fear or anxiety it’s totally understandable as a loving parent that you would want to protect them from the fear caused by phobias. Sometimes it can be difficult and perhaps because of exhaustion or just a lack of options, parents may want to avoid whatever it is that is causing the fear. This often will lead to some short-term relief for parents and children, but this can in the end actually make their phobias even worse and can even make their anxiety worse. Avoidance keeps feeding the fire.
By avoiding what’s causing the phobias only takes away the actual opportunity for children to learn that whatever they are worrying about more than likely really isn’t going to happen. Even if it does, it’s something that might make them more resilient, stronger and more resourceful in the future when coping with stressful situations.
The more something is avoided the more that the avoidance is going to help increase the fears and it could eventually impact their lives and how they react to the world around them, especially as an adult.
No matter how old we are, our brains are continually changing in order to learn how to react to experiences especially ones that are repeated. The brain will change itself so that it can learn how to think and react to the world around us. If avoidance becomes a repeated response to things that are frightening, the brain will then shape itself to support avoidance.
What to Do About Phobias in Children
The worst time to try and deal with phobias in children would be when they’re in the middle of high anxiety. The part of the brain that deals with logic and facts have flown out the window. The best time to deal with their phobias would be during the team when they are calm. When calm, the brain will be alert, relaxed and much more receptive to any information that you might give it. This is when the brain is far more open to trying different things.
Fill in Missing Pieces With Lots of Information
With younger children, they are still trying to figure out how the world around them works. They are just figuring out their way around and what cause and effect actually mean. So, the more information they can understand the better it will be for them to understand that most often their phobias are nothing for them to worry about and that they can learn how to get over them. As for older kids, they can handle detailed facts that can help them worry less. For instance, if they’re afraid of storms, you should talk about where the thunder and the lightning comes from. Do your best to give them as much real information based on science, that you possibly can. This is a way to help them feel safe.
It’s important that you validate what your child seems to be feeling. However, it’s important that you don’t overreact to their phobias. If you go and scoop up your child each time they become scared, you could inadvertently communicate to them that there really is something they should be afraid of. This could lead them to believe that the only time they are safe is when they’re in your arms. Instead, try to make the hugging be a reward for them showing brave behavior and not one for avoiding the behavior.
Rework the Association
The huge problem with intense phobias is that they can become associated with extremely intense memories and feelings, generally bad ones. It’s important to try and rework the association by combining something that’s fun and/or relaxing with whatever it is that is causing their fears. Thunderstorms are a good example. Let them know you understand how they are feeling but reassure them that they are normal and part of nature. Once you do that then redirect them to do something they enjoy such as watching a funny movie or color during a thunderstorm. This way, if they do something they enjoy during a thunderstorm, the next time they will associate it with something enjoyable. By doing this you are taking their focus off of their scary thoughts or memories and replace it with something that’s much more positive in order to dilute their negative emotions related to thunderstorms.
This is when you try and encourage children to talk about their phobias by doing it in a storytelling format. Storytelling is something that helps both the right and left sides of the brain work together. The right brain kicks in when someone is feeling fear whereas the left brain is the logical side of our brain. When phobias are present, the right brain takes over quite often. However, if storytelling is implemented it can force the two sides of the brain to work together and calm down. So, it’s important to try and get children to talk about it. One way to start this is to ask them to tell you when was the first time they started feeling afraid about whatever it is they are afraid of. If they start their story off by themselves allow them to be as creative as possible and if they are old enough ask them to write their story down. It’s important to allow them to let the ideas and words flow naturally. Make sure to encourage them to name all the feelings they have experienced.
Often children with phobias think that if they talk about their experience that they are going to feel worse, it’s important that you encourage them and assure them that by telling their story is only going to make them feel better. Because if they don’t talk about it or write it down, the brain is going to find other ways to make sense of their fears, and phobias are prime examples of what can happen.
This is a technique is often used in therapy and it’s a way to very gently expose children to what it is they are afraid of. By gently exposing them gradually to what it is they’re afraid of can help them to be less sensitive to the fear and also will help them to respond differently. With phobias, the thing that’s feared often feels overwhelming and totally unapproachable. But when you take a child step by step you gradually expose them to something they are afraid of this exposure can help them build more confidence and familiarity. Gradually exposing them in a gentle manner can help children to feel less helpless and can give them the courage to face their fears. How to work the stepladder:
- Get them on board. Encourage them to be the hero of the story.
- Explain to them how a stepladder actually works.
- Make it personal to them. When they show they understand then you can tell them they can use this to do this with their fear.
- Break down their fear into simpler and smaller worries instead of one big fear.
- Make sure there is a small distance between each of the steps. The steps you take need to be as close together as possible because it’s easier for the child if the stepladder technique is short and not excessively long.
- Even though space between steps should be short, there is no overall hurry. This means that you can take as many steps as you and your child needs.
- If they get stuck between the steps it could be because there is too much time or distance between the steps. If need be, break the step down they are stuck on and break it into smaller steps.
- Make the stepladder technique worth their time and effort. It can be challenging for kids to go through a stepladder session so it’s important that they are rewarded for being brave. Rewards don’t have to be excessive and they don’t even have to be material. Things such as spending time with you, doing something fun, fixing their favorite meal, watch their favorite movie, etc.
Finally, remember that the goal isn’t to get rid of the anxiety-totally, the goal should be to make it more manageable. Even though they might still feel a little bit of anxiety about their fear, it’s normal, but they will learn how to cope with it and they’ll be able to face their fears much easier.