Fear is a natural response to threatening situations, but sometimes fear can prevent people from participating in everyday experiences. A phobia is an irrational fear of something. When a child struggles with a phobia, it can greatly impact their lives and the lives of their families. Psychologists Claire A. B. Freeland, PhD and Jacqueline B. Toner, PhD explain how parents can help kids with phobias overcome their fears by supporting gradual, increasing exposure to the feared situation, helping kids learn mindfulness and self-calming techniques, promoting positive self-talk, and monitoring exposure to frightening messages from the world at large in Magination Press book What to Do When Fear Interferes: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Phobias. Take small steps The most effective way to overcome a phobia is exposure, which requires the child to experience the feared object for a period of time long enough for their extreme physical and emotional reactions to dissipate. One of the greatest challenges in helping a child to overcome a phobia can be convincing them to hang in there rather than avoid their fear, and to provide support as they do so. It’s important to approach the trigger in a modulated way. Initially, a child may need help choosing tasks that are far removed from the feared experience, such as imagining a thunderstorm or looking at pictures of insects. Taking it slowly and letting a child experience success by overcoming mildly scary situation will allow them to build confidence in facing increasingly more feared situations. Build skills In addition to helping a child increase her exposure to her phobia, parents can help her develop strategies to manage her reactions to scary experiences. By developing positive self-talk, a child can learn to focus on rational thinking and self-cheerleading to proceed with exposure experiences. Providing rewards, both tangible and social, will help them feel accomplishment and pride in taking on gradually more difficult challenges. Learning coping strategies that help them to relax and de-stress can reduce overall anxious tendencies, making success more likely. Manage Media Phobias can result from frightening or traumatic experiences, but more often, they don’t have a known source. Children who tend to be anxious may be likely to develop a specific phobia. Children are particularly susceptible to developing vicarious fears. This happens when they observe another person reacting with intense fear. Or, a fear can develop vicariously by watching a movie where another is afraid or even from a news report that accentuates the damage caused by a storm or the abundance of a particular illness this season. Parents should be aware of messages children may encounter that could serve to reinforce their fears. Gently redirect adult conversation about impending weather events, recent accidents, or out-of-control animals. Judiciously monitor children’s experiences with frightening messages they receive through the media. When such messages still manage to reach a child, a parent can counter scary messages with more realistic views of the possible danger and how people can stay safe. HelpingRead More
About Claire Freeland, Ph.D.Claire A. B. Freeland, PhD, is a clinical psychologist in private practice, working for more than 35 years with youth and their families. With an interest in bringing psychological concepts to a wide audience, she has co-written several books for children and teens on subjects related to emotions and behavior. She lives with her husband in Baltimore, MD. They have two grown children.
Your child’s feelings and behaviors are influenced by how they think about the world around them. As a parent, you can help your child avoid unhelpful interpretations of events: thinking traps. Getting stuck in thinking traps can make your child feel overly anxious and act against their own best interests. Kids can fall into habits with how they think. Their self-talk is so automatic, they may barely notice. You may need to work with them to identify their typical unhelpful self-talk as a step in the process of teaching alternative, more helpful thinking. See this post for guidance in identifying anxious self-talk. Just the other day we heard Ella complain that her parents never punished her younger sister Lucy. Ella sounded angry and she went right over and hit her sister. Well, you can guess what happened next. Yep, Ella was sent to her room. Although the middle of an upset is not a good time to teach alternative ways of thinking, after all was calm, Ella’s parents talked to her about her thinking traps. Black-and-White Thinking They pointed out that she had recently been using the word NEVER in her statements. They taught her that these kinds of extreme words result in BLACK-and-WHITE thinking. They helped her challenge her unhelpful thoughts with alternatives. They reminded Ella of all the shades of grey between black and white; how, as the older child, she is held to a higher standard, but she is also given more privileges. As they talked with Ella, she began to seem less envious of her sister and appreciative of the nuances of how parents relate to siblings of different ages. Many children use BLACK-and-WHITE thinking in a self-critical way, such as “I’m not good at math.” These statements are extreme and describe a permanent state of affairs. While it is not necessary to state the opposite (I’m good at math), less extreme and less permanent self-talk are both helpful and hopeful. When a child falls into a thinking trap and describes themselves as not smart, not athletic, or the like, talk with them about challenging these BLACK-and-WHITE, SELF-CRITICAL thoughts. For example, “no one will want me in the play after that mistake” could be changed to “The audience didn’t seem to notice that I skipped some words.” By changing FOREVER thoughts to FOR NOW thoughts, children develop a more open, flexible, and realistic mindset. “I always get put on the losing team” is a stuck, FOREVER thought. Change this FOREVER thought to a FOR NOW thought such as “I’ll be at the top of my age group next season.” Catastrophic Thinking Theo missed blocking a shot in soccer and went home with such CATASTROPHIC thinking that he believed he would never play any sport again! CATASTROPHIC thoughts are like snowballs that grow as they roll down the hill picking up snow along the way. This style of thinking involves predicting the future. “If I raise my hand and get the answer wrong, I’ll be soRead More