Understanding Childhood Phobias and How to Help Your Child Cope
Fear is a natural response. It’s hardwired into our brains. In an emergency situation, the logical thought processes we use to navigate the complexities of life are simply too slow; seconds can mean the difference between survival and disaster. It’s a natural feature of the emotional “operating system” of our brains. But some fears escape the realm of survival response and deteriorate the quality of life for those who suffer from those responses. We call these phobias, from the Greek “Phobos,” the name of the son of the mythical god Ares who was the personification of fear itself.
Each phobia comes with unique triggers. With a little bit of patience and some serious fortitude, adults can “face their fears” and come to terms with their phobias. Disarming these phobias has a dramatic increase on the quality of life for those who can face them…
…but for children, phobias can be especially crippling. Unlike adults, children don’t have the worldly experience necessary to conquer their phobias. They are not able to “self-diagnose” these phobias and analyze them for what they are. Children really depend on their parents to help identify the difference between a useful fear (like the fear of getting hurt doing a foolhardy or dangerous task) and a phobia (like the fear of clowns, or of lightning).
Here’s what you can do If Your Little One Has Childhood Phobias
The first step is to recognize a phobia and distinguish it from regular fear. Most children have at least one specific fear — that’s natural. But phobias are much more. A phobia is specifically a fear that interferes with the quality of life of the child. Being afraid of large dogs may be a natural fear (especially if those dogs are larger than the child!), but once that fear metastasizes into a fear of any activity where a dog may be encountered, you can be sure you are dealing with a phobia.
Once you have identified the childhood phobia for what it truly is, there are a few things one can do to help the child combat the phobia. One useful method is known as “talk therapy”. Instead of dismissing a child’s phobia out of hand, or simply assuming the child will grow out of it, why not talk to your child about the phobia? What exactly about the dark room is scary? Is there anything you can do to make it less scary? By discussing the phobia, you allow your child to confront the fear in a completely safe environment, away from the fear and within the protection of parents. This can allow your child to mentally disarm the phobia.
Once a line of communication is opened, another method becomes available to deal with phobias, “Exposure therapy.” This involves exposing your child to the phobia trigger in such a manner that the phobia is completely disarmed. This must be done in a gradual manner, encouraging your child to learn all about the feared objects. Your child can learn the history, details, and even the benefits provided by the feared objects. Then, one small step at a time, you encourage your child to face small portions of the fear until, before you know it, the fear is completely conquered!
These are, of course, only two methods available to help a child overcome childhood phobias. The most important thing to keep in mind is that children don’t have the experience at hand to face these fears alone. They require parental help to fully disarm these phobias and lead a better life. Children are amazingly resilient; with a little bit of effort by their parents, they can get over their fears. And the sooner they get over their fears, the better their lives will be going forward!
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