Spiders, heights, enclosed spaces—many of us have things we are afraid of, but it’s unlikely that we let our fears keep us from doing all the things we like. Like other types of anxiety disorders—panic, obsessive-compulsive, post-traumatic stress—phobias are a debilitating disorder based in fear. Oftentimes, phobias can keep a person from experiencing life to the fullest and can leave them feeling anxious and out of control. If your child is suffering from a phobia, there are certain steps that you can take to help them conquer their anxiety.
What is a Phobia?
A phobia is an unrealistic or extreme fear that is triggered by the presence or anticipation of some situation or object. Specific phobias are centered around a specific object or situation, such as animals, storms, enclosed spaces, heights or water, whereas social phobias occur when a person is terrified of criticism or being judged harshly by others. Young people suffering from a phobia go to great lengths to avoid the object of their fear, which can limit them greatly.
What Causes Phobias?
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Phobias can be attributed to both environmental and genetic factors. Specific phobias are sometimes triggered by a fearful first encounter with the situation or object, but a trigger is not always involved. A child’s personality and temperament may play a role in the development of a fear. For instance, a child who is extremely shy and fearful in unfamiliar situations may be at risk. Some studies suggest that kids whose parents have an anxiety disorder are more likely to develop one of their own, however more research is needed to clarify whether or not these disorders can be inherited.
Dealing With a Phobia
If you suspect your child is suffering from a phobia (click here for signs), it’s useful to ask yourself a couple questions:
- Is your child’s fear and behavior typical for their age? If your young child is afraid of the dark, for example, reassurance and a nightlight may be all that is needed to eventually move past the fear. That isn’t to say that the source of anxiety should be ignored—always be attentive and show your child support—and if the fear doesn’t resolve itself, more intensive help may be necessary.
- Does your child’s fear seem unreasonable? If the fear is disproportionate to the cause of stress, it might be time to get the help of a counsellor or psychiatrist, particularly if there is a repeat pattern to your child’s fear. Get in touch with your doctor or a mental health professional who specializes in children to discuss the next steps.
What Can You Do as a Parent?
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Acknowledge that your child’s fear is real; don’t trivialize it or belittle it no matter how silly it may seem. Still, it’s important to not cater to the fear: if your child is afraid dogs, for example, don’t go out of your way to avoid them as this reinforces the idea that dogs are scary and should be feared. Teach your child to rate their fears. Visualizing the fear on a scale of one to 10 might help your child understand how afraid (or unafraid) they really are. Finally, teach your child strategies for coping with fear, such as relaxation techniques, deep breathing and positive self-statements.
If the fear intensifies or worsens, it may be time to bring a professional into the conversation. Whatever the case, your support and understanding are absolutely necessary when tackling your child’s phobia.
Feature Image: Horia Varlan