5 Tips To Help Your Child Beat Their Phobia

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What Can I Do To Help My Child Overcome Their Phobia?

BY DR SARAH HUGHES

Most kids have childhood fears that fade over time, but some kids develop phobias that persist or even worsen with development.  Kids can develop phobias of any object or situation, but common phobias relate to loud noises, costumed characters, animals, flying, storms and other natural disasters, or needles.

Are vaccinations made worse by your child's needle phobia?

Does your child have a phobia?

When kids come into contact with their feared object or situation they experience high distress and physical symptoms of anxiety (e.g. a racing heart beat, trouble breathing, shakiness). Younger children may also express their distress through tantrums or clinginess.

So if phobias are normal – how do you decide when to wait for it to pass and when to seek help?

As a general rule, if your child’s fear is intense and excessive, if it has been present for more than 6 months, or if it gets in the way of normal routines or prevents your child from participating in certain activities, your child may need a bit of extra help to overcome their phobia.

These tips will help your child to regain control over their phobia.

If your child’s fear persists speak to your GP about a referral to a child clinical psychologist.

Tip #1: Help Your Child Identify their Fears

Help your child write a list of all the things they’re afraid of.  Use words your child relates to.  If your child denies being “afraid” of swimming but can admit that they “don’t like it” use these words instead.  Make a list of all the situations associated with this feared situation.  For example, if your child is afraid of swimming your list might include: standing in the shallow end of the pool, swimming in the deep end of the pool, swimming at the beach, going on water slides, etc.

Tip #2: Help Your Child Face their Fears via a Step-Ladder

Help your child rank their fears from most fearful to least fearful.  The first step on your child’s step-ladder should be only mildly anxiety-provoking.  When thinking about doing this step your child should feel a little bit anxious but not so anxious that they think they won’t be able to do it.

Tip #3: Develop a List of Rewards

Facing fears can be hard and while you as a parent might be able to see the future benefits of overcoming a phobia your child will probably see things differently.  Ask your child to come up with a list of rewards that would help them to feel good about climbing their ladder.  For rewards to be effective they have to be meaningful (i.e. something your child actually wants) and awarded as soon as possible after the step is completed.  If the reward can’t be given immediately (e.g. a sleepover at the end of the week) give your child a voucher that they can “cash in”.

Rewards should reflect the degree of difficulty of the task – smaller rewards should be given for smaller steps, and larger rewards for later more challenging steps.  Rewards might include: picking what’s for dinner, going to the movies, having a friend over, special time with mum/dad, extra TV time, staying up 15 minutes later than usual, etc.

Tip #4: Practice, Practice, Practice

Set aside at least 1-2 times per week to practice.  Start with the least anxiety provoking step first, and practice this step over and over until it’s almost boring.  When you’ve practiced enough, move on to the next step and repeat.  It’s important that your child experiences success at each step before moving on.

Tip #5: Model Bravery

If you’re apprehensive, your child might misinterpret your anxiety to mean that (1) the situation is dangerous, and (2) you don’t believe they can cope.  Being calm shows your child that you have confidence in them.

Dr. Sarah Hughes is a clinical psychologist and the founder of Think Clinical Psychologists. She enjoys working with children, adolescents, and adults, and specialises in anxiety, depression, postnatal depression, eating disorders, self-harm, and challenging behaviour.