Dealing with phobias – let’s not jump in the deep end!

Most of us have something that we would rather avoid.  Some of the things we commonly fear are probably dangerous in certain circumstances, but we like to avoid them in all situations if we can. Spiders, snakes, heights, flying, clowns, the dark…there are a long list of things that can unsettle people from time to time.

When someone has an extreme or irrational fear of something and the fear is causing them significant issues in their lives, we call this a phobia.

A fear of a specific creature, object or situation is referred to as a simple or specific phobia – although some people who have simple phobias would not see them as being simple.

Some phobias can be extremely debilitating making it hard for people to go about their day to day lives.  Many parents will know of the troubles that a fear of the dark can cause a household when a little person needs lots of support to get to sleep at night.   I have seen someone with a spider phobia that was so significant, she was having trouble sleeping for fear that a spider may crawl into her mouth. She also avoided walking on any grassy areas when she could.  I’ve also had quite a few little ones over the years who have been phobic of balloons.  This has meant they’ve often avoided birthday parties and they have made their parents cross the road to avoid shops that might have balloons on a display or sign in their shop front.  One person I saw could not even handle people saying the word “balloon”.  Clearly, all of these little ones had phobias that were getting in the way of their lives in way too many ways.

Some people are born with a predisposition t o develop a phobia and we do know that anxiety can run in families.  Most phobias develop in our young years.  They might be precipitated by a scary experience.  In fact, most of the young people I have seen in my practice with phobias often blame a brother or sister for exposing them in a pretty scary way to something that they then stayed sacred of for a long time.  It may also be that the younger member of the family has watched a movie that might have been scarier than they could manage.

Stephen King and big brothers might have a lot to answer for, but in this day and age, parents also need to be mindful of scary internet content, too.

A internet gaming character called Freddy in “Five Nights at Freddy’s” also has a lot to answer for when it comes to generating fear in those who may be too young to understand.

People, young and old, will go to quite a deal of trouble to avoid the things that they are phobic of and this is where a psychologist might focus the main thrust of their treatment of a phobia.  In the early years of psychology, phobias would be dealt with by exposing the person to the thing they were frightened of and forcing them in that situation in what was called “flooding”.  When I think of flooding I often think of Indiana Jones movies where Dr Jones has to fall into or crawl through a pit of insects or snakes.  However, we would be unlikely to treat phobias in that way anymore.  We really want to focus more on people learning how to manage rather than just being thrown in the deep end.

Instead, we usually work with the child to walk through a series of graded exposures.  We would firstly generate a scale of scariness with the person who is scared.  In the case of balloons, it might be that they might rate a picture of a balloon as about 20 scary points, a video of balloons 30, touching a deflated balloon as 40 , and inflated balloon as 80 and popping an inflated balloon as 90.  Everyone will likely generate a slightly different list.

We have to be careful we do not assume that all phobias are exactly the same.

We would then teach the child some things that could do to manage the anxious arousal (maybe breathing exercises and some self talk) and we would start with the lowest level task and help the person manage that fear until it was very easy for them.  We want them to really take their time and actually manage rather than just hold their breath and do it quickly without registering it.  When they and really mastered their fear at one level then we would move up to the next level.

Interestingly, some knew research is emerging to suggest that sometimes a dose of a certain antibiotic (D-Cyclosterine) can assist children who are getting treatment for phobias.   It is thought that the antibiotic works on learning and seems to assist children progress through their graded exposure tasks.

So, if you have a little one who is fearful of something, if it’s at the point where it is significantly interfering with their lives on a regular basis and the fear is extreme and very distressing, be sure to seek some psychological help.  If you have noticed some fears starting to develop, while it is tempting to help your child avoid the things that distress them, see if you can encourage them to face their fears in a gentle and gradual way.  Don’t drop them in the deep end of their fear.  Negotiate an easy starting point and build from there.  Rewards for being brave will also help.

Oh, and as always, adults who model brave behaviour in the face of simple fears will be much more helpful than adults who freak out!

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