Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My! : Childhood Fears & Phobias
Children do their best to put on brave faces to cope with life’s stressful or daunting situations, assimilating to the best of their abilities. Starting a new school year or having a conflict come up with a friend can cause normal anxiety. In fact, if navigated well, these circumstances can help them to build the coping skills and resilience that they need to overcome future challenges and be successful in life. Aside from general anxiety, there are specific fears that children sometimes share, such as fear of the dark, strangers, natural disasters, separation from parents, dogs, and thunderstorms, that naturally decrease over time. These are considered developmentally normal, in that they do not interfere with the course of everyday life.
Children can also develop severe fear-based reactions to things at a level that begins to interfere with daily life in a bigger way. When this happens, the fear is considered a phobia, which is explained as “an intense or unreasonable fear of a situation or object that interferes with normal functioning.” Phobias can appear rather suddenly, through exposure to a traumatic event, misinformation, frightening news broadcasts, or anything that produces intense fear, or they can also develop over time due to a prolonged, existing fear of some kind. When a child has a phobia, it affects the whole family and caretakers due to the immense effort that is put into avoiding and managing exposure to this feared “thing” that can sometimes be a daily occurrence. Children can be phobic of water, dogs, bad weather, bugs, or pretty much anything you can think of. It can cause a great deal of strain for the child and the family as they experience frequent episodes of emotional intensity and are often left feeling hopeless in the aftermath.
But a child suffering from a phobia cannot just snap out if it! That is because the emotional centers of the brain are what is being triggered, the mind-body relationship becomes hijacked by stress hormones causing mixed messages to flood the brain and compromise the entire nervous system. When faced with a perceived threat, the child launches into survival mode, impairing her ability to think and act. It can affect heart rate and produce physical symptoms such as stomach aches, dizziness, and confusion.
Phobias are NOT rational, so it takes a continuous, gentle effort to shift a child’s fearful perceptions to a level that is more manageable. The good news is, it can be done and here are some suggestions to help if you find yourself dealing with this issue.
• Validate the feeling – “You get really scared when dogs are around, don’t you?” Make sure that you are noticing the child’s fear without judging it. It is very common to want to soothe a fearful child by saying, “There’s nothing to worry about.” However, this can cause them to feel alienated in their struggle to cope with the issue.
• Keep calm and carry on – It is easy to get wrapped up in the overwhelming feelings that accompany phobias, but it is important to stay calm, cool, and collected during these episodes so that you are not adding any fuel to the perceptual fire!
• Baby steps – Do not force the child into a situation to prove that it is not as dangerous as he thinks. Take gradual measures to introduce things that are associated with the specific event or object.
For example: If there is a fear of spiders consider these steps:
• get a book about spiders
• buy a fake spider from the dollar store
• eventually visit the science center or zoo to see a spider.
• Be here now! – When the child is NOT plagued by extreme anxiety symptoms, teach the child a few mindfulness techniques to help her stay in the moment and not get carried off into the woes of the future or the past. This can also help the child to recover quicker from stress responses.
Play therapy is an excellent road to take to help a child process and release the mix of emotions and behaviors that accompany phobias. A trained therapist uses methods such as Cognitive-Behavioral techniques, imagery, expressive art, patterns in play, and sand tray therapy to approach these emotions in a safe way so that the child can gain the insight and tools for change to occur. If you are struggling with anxiety or a phobia yourself, or if you are trying to help your child find relief from these kinds of symptoms, please contact Life Enhancement Counseling Services today at 407-443-8862 to schedule an appointment. Our experienced Orlando mental health counselors are ready to help.
The Opposite of Worry: The Playful Parenting Approach to Childhood Anxieties and Fears Lawrence J. Cohen
Phobias and Fears in Children: Powerful Strategies to Try
10 Ways to Teach Mindfulness to Kids