We might all have a few things we really don’t like, spiders, heights or a trip to the dentist can see people running for the hills, but for people with a phobia, their fears are much, much stronger. Symptoms of phobias are serious including vomiting, fainting, heart palpitations and chest pains.
If you are a parent of a child or teenager with a phobia (and about one in ten children are thought to have a phobia at some stage) then it can be really difficult to know what to do to help.
Often what starts as a bit of an aversion to something can end up in a full blown phobia that can leave the child seriously distressed and the parent seriously frustrated. If your child develops a phobia to dogs and Granny has two of them, popping round for Sunday lunch can become a very difficult affair. Children with phobias can find it hard to socialise with other children, some develop school refusal and because they often know, or are told, that their level of fear is irrational they may end up with low self-esteem or even depression.
1. They can’t control it – it’s thought that phobias developed as a survival technique in early man to curb their enthusiasm for exploring the world and teach them what is safe and what isn’t. Venomous snakes might have looked tempting and even tasty, but quite quickly man would have learnt that snakes are dangerous and the ‘fear’ that developed would have kept them safe. In this way, our brain is hard wired for phobias.
2. Phobias can change over time – young children have different phobias to older children because they don’t have such a rigid understanding of the world. Four year olds may not understand that a monster simply cannot live under the stairs because it won’t fit, but that doesn’t stop them believing it is a possibility. As a child matures and develops a more rational understanding of the world they will often grow out of some of their phobias. Teenage phobias, on the other hand, tend to be socially based and are therefore much harder to overcome.
3. Fear is a scale - it’s useful to think of phobias and fears being on a scale. Take dogs. Some people love dogs, keep them as pets and happily greet dogs they meet. Other people aren’t so keen on them and might not engage with dogs they come across. Some people fear them, they might ask a host to put their dog in a different room and skirt around them in the street.
And then some people have a phobia of dogs. For these people, even an image of a dog can be enough to result in a panic attack. Going to areas where they know there will be dogs, like a park, will fill them with complete dread, to the point that they may decide simply not to go out.
4. Exposure technique needs to be done VERY carefully – if you have a child with a phobia you will undoubtedly have been given lots of advice by others. One piece you will probably have heard is to make your child ‘face their fears’.
This technique may seem brutal but comes from a theoretically sound place. One of the problems with anxiety disorders, including phobias, is that by avoiding the situation that makes you anxious you are in fact reaffirming it and the fear can become stronger.
For instance, if you have a fear of spiders and are faced with the prospect of holding one, you will probably feel shaky, sick and have a racing heart. Your body is on ‘flight’ mode. If you then hold the spider and nothing goes wrong, your brain will learn that spiders aren’t the dangerous thing it thought it was.
However, if you don’t hold the spider, your feelings of anxiety will naturally reside anyway and your brain will mistakenly learn that in order to feel better you need to avoid the spider at all costs.
So it’s a good idea to expose your child to their fear, right? Not necessarily. The problem is exposure technique or desensitisation isn’t clear cut. Done wrong or without the correct support, your child can develop an even greater fear of the object and it may also damage their self-esteem and belief that they can overcome their difficulties.
5. Seek professional help - Childhood phobias can seem a bit of nuisance to many, they can stop families from being able to stay at people’s houses or prevent your child from joining in activities. However, for some they are also very serious. School phobia affects 1 in 100 children and can limit their academic progress. Depression and other anxiety disorders can develop in children with phobias as well as a decrease in confidence and self-esteem.
The good news is, therapy is often very successful at helping children overcome their fears, so the key is to seek help early, before the phobia has a chance to become too powerful.
Clinical Partners is the UK’s largest private mental health partnership and helps hundreds of children overcome their anxiety disorders every year. If you are concerned about a loved one, you can call 0203 761 7026 to speak to one of our qualified clinical advisors about how we can help or request a callback.