Strictly speaking, the definition of a phobia is ‘an overwhelming and debilitating fear of an object, place, situation, feeling or animal’*, but many parents find that even their child’s milder fears can cause angst.
Fears and phobias can be irrational but are grounded in instinctive responses: our bodies are programmed to respond to danger.
Some of us are more sensitive with this than others, and children, understandably, can get a shade muddled over what is and isn’t a real threat.
Sometimes, but not always, there will have been an obvious triggering event – such as becoming scared of our four-legged friends after being barked at by a large, fierce dog. Kids’ fears can also be linked to an especially active imagination.
Often your child will outgrow their phobia (how many adults do you know who are still scared of the dark?) but in the meantime, here are a few ideas on what you can do:
1Take your child’s fear seriously
Even if it seems completely daft to you, it’s real for them. Telling your son or daughter that they’re being silly or teasing them isn’t going to solve anything. Worse still, some children might then just internalise their fear, as they’re too embarrassed to discuss it with you.
2 Provide reassurance
If whatever they’re scared of isn’t actually a threat, provide reassurance about it. If their trigger is something genuinely dangerous but very rare e.g. being struck by lightning, then put the fear in perspective (assuming they’re old enough to understand), and talk about what can be done to limit the chances of it happening. Obviously there’s a time and place for such conversations – this isn’t going to work in the middle of a hysterical freak out, so save the discussion for later when they’ve settled back down.
3 Attempt a little desensitisation
Get your child very gently used to whatever they see as a threat, you might be able to show them that their fears are unfounded. If they’re afraid of dogs, is there a friendly, small canine you know who they could meet and get comfortable with? If it’s the dentist they have an issue with, look for one who is especially experienced at dealing with patients with phobias.
4 Give your child weapons!
For little ones, a dose of trickery might bat some of their anxiety away. If they’re afraid of the dark (and they can’t sleep with a night light on), could you give them a special ‘magic shield’ to repel those scary monsters they worry about? Could you create a special phrase or ‘spell’ together that takes the scared feelings away?
5 Avoid transferring your own fears or phobias to your child
If you jump a mile and squeal every time a bee or wasp comes within ten-feet, it will increase the chances of your son or daughter copying you. If you can’t hide your own fear, now might be the time to seek support to address it.
6 Sometimes phobias develop as a symptom of other issues
Anxiety or upset over all the usual stresses of life, such as bereavement, parental separation or major changes to family circumstances, can manifest themselves in this way. Has something happened to your child that roughly coincided with the phobia’s appearance?
7Still no improvement? Consider seeking further help
If you try all this and your child’s fear or phobia is continuing to get in the way of everyday life or stopping them enjoying activities, don’t shy away from getting outside help. Talk to your GP who can refer you for specialist support if appropriate.