Dr Stan Steindl, Clinical Psychologist
Phobias such as fear of animals, heights, or the dark are common psychological problems in children:probably more so than other better known problems like conduct disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
But how do parents know when these phobias will become a problem for their child now or in later life?
Parents may consider whether their child’s phobia is interfering with their or the family’s life. If it is, then something should be done about it.
If parents feel their child’s phobia is becoming out of control, it is important to mange it early, to prevent the risk of them becoming anxious adults.
Fear of everyday experiences such as storms, dogs, spiders, water, or the dark are the most common phobias in children. It is natural for us to have an instinctive fear of these as the fear protects us from possible dangers.
When the natural fear is out of proportion to the real threat and children are worried about what might happen is when the fear becomes a phobia.
To help children overcome simple phobias, it is firstly important for parents to react appropriately to their child’s phobic behaviour. Children learn to behave in certain ways from the attention they get for that behaviour. So parents need to give their child attention when they are brave about an irrational fear, and minimise attention when they are complaining or avoiding scary situations.
When teaching children to overcome their phobias, psychologists show children and their parents that phobias and anxiety are made up of three parts: physiological- how their body feels; cognitive- how they think; and behavioural-what they do.
Using simple and fun exercises, children can learn about these three components. They can learn how to identify their breathing and other relaxation techniques.
Psychologists will also work with children to help them become more positive in their thinking. Some questions that children could ask themselves to help them think more positively include:
- How likely is it that this scary thing will happen? Has it happened much in the past?
- What is the worst thing that could happen? Is it really that bad?
- What would I say to my friend who was scared of this same thing to make them feel brave.
- What would your superhero do in the same situation?
Most importantly, we also help parents expose their children to the fear which will reduce their phobic reaction.
Gradually exposing your child to the fear is important because their fear will only escalate if they never have to experience the situation.
Using a step by step approach, gradually exposing the child to their fears and rewarding them as they achieve each step, is the best way to deal with phobias.
Throwing them in the deep end will only reinforce to them that their fears are real. Take for example a child’s water phobia. You may break the exposure into several steps and reward them as they achieve each step. Some initial steps could include taking the child to a private pool to play around the pool and maybe have them dangle their feet in the water. A later step might be to stand on the steps and so on.
To read more about our team of Clinical Psychologist and those who specialise in treating children, head to our Brisbane Psychologists page.