How to Help a Child Overcome a Phobia 1

How to Help a Child Overcome a Phobia

Yesterday, after telling my boys for the 10,000th time to finish their piano lessons, I sent both of them to timeout. Outside. Apart. When it was in the 90s. (Chill out, they weren’t in the sun and it was only for 10 min)

Now for many parents, this may sound like it’s not much of a punishment at all, but my boys tend to like staying inside more than outside, and they definitely like playing with each other more than being alone. In fact, they really don’t seem to know what to do with themselves when they’re outside alone (that’s a story for another day though).

Anyway, after I had sent my first boy outside for a period, I heard him crying a bit so opened the front door.  He was pretty freaked out and rambling on about bugs, and insects with wings, and all sorts of stuff related to creepy crawly things.  After talking with him a bit, it appeared he has at least a partial phobia to insects (My wife confirmed this to me later).

I decided to try an interesting approach with him based on exposure therapy, I’m hoping will help him get over his phobia.

Fears, Phobias, and Exposure

Many fears only get worse when you avoid the things you’re afraid of, and diminish when you’re exposed to those things you’re scared of through your own free will (In other words, someone isn’t forcing you to be exposed to things you’re afraid of).

Purposely exposing oneself to fears can (and probably should) be done in steps.  Start small, then gradually work your way up to more extreme versions of the exposure.

Why does this work? My theory is three-fold:

  1. When you expose yourself to something scary, you learn to get used to the feeling of fear and it naturally diminishes because of that.
  2. After observing that the object you’re scared of isn’t going to harm you, your subconscious corrects its assessment of the object and no longer views it as a threat.
  3. When you willingly expose yourself to something scary, you reassess what you think you’re capable of, even who you think you are. Your self-image shifts.

Points one and two are fairly self-explanatory, but I’d like to elaborate a bit on point three.

The Self Image and Fears

What we think we’re capable of and how we interpret the world around us is greatly determined by our self-image. The self-image determines what we think we are and aren’t capable of (independent of what may actually be true). The self-image, in turn, is influenced by the actions we observe ourselves taking – almost like viewing ourselves in the third person.

So for instance, if we’re scared of bugs and every time we see a bug we run away screaming, the self-image of a person who is scared of bugs will be reinforced within us. In fact, the next time we see bugs our fear may actually be greater since our subconscious has ways of ensuring the self-image remains true (so our actions reinforce the self-image and our self-image pushes us to continue taking those actions!).

Decreasing Phobias Through Exposure

So how can we get diminish or extinguish phobias?

Gradual exposure to the things that frighten us.

By willingly exposing ourselves to something we fear, our nervous system gets used to handling the discomfort caused by the situation and we start to redefine our self-image.

We change from being a person who’s scared of a particular thing, to someone who isn’t bothered (much),  because we’ve observed ourselves purposely exposing ourselves to something frightening and we didn’t run away or avoid it.

Helping My Son with His Phobia

Which gets me back to the story about my son and bugs.  Believe it or not, I explained parts of the above to him, in a way that an eight-year-old can somewhat grasp. I told him that although bugs are a bit scary, they don’t have to be nearly as scary as he thinks.  That in order to make them not so scary we’d have to program his brain – kind of like programming a computer.

To do this, we’d need to come up with a plan that would involve him going out on the porch for a small amount of time and then popping back to safety inside –  over and over.

Initially, it would be for a very small amount of time, but the next time he’d go back out for a bit longer, and a bit longer, and keep repeating until he was up to some decent amount of time and he wasn’t quite as frightened as he once was.

To start, I asked him how long could he stay out there the first time – indicating that it should be long enough that he’d be a bit uncomfortable, but short enough that he knew he could for sure do it if he set his mind to it.

So he chose 15 seconds. Good enough.

After that, we came up with a simple sequence. After each exposure, he’d come in, close the door, rest for a few seconds, then go back out.  Each time he would spend 5 more seconds outside.

So his time outside looked like this:

15 seconds, 20 seconds, 25 seconds, 30 seconds and so on.

Exposure Groundrules

I made clear to him a couple of points:

  1. He should only do this if he wanted to do it. It was 100% his decision, not mine.
  2. He would have to be the one that took the initiative to open the door, step outside, close the door, wait and then come back in. I could not and would not assist in any way.

These points are incredibly important. For the exposure to work, he has to not only want to decrease the phobia, but he has to be the one that is taking the initiative. If I’m the one pushing him in any way, that will just create dependence, which I don’t want to do at all (That could easily set up the pattern of him thinking he can only handle bugs if Dad is around – not what either of us would want.)

We’ll See How it Works with My Son

So how did it go?  It’s a bit early to report any results (we just started yesterday), but based on my own experiences of getting over fears and stuff I’ve tried with the boys before, I’m quite hopeful.  I’ll submit one or two followup articles in a few weeks to let you know how it’s going.

Quick side note: I’ve done similar things with my boys in the past, and it’s worked out well. We used to have something called the Brave Game. In this game, I and they would dare each other to do things that are safe but scary, such as run into dark rooms. That really helped them at that time so I have strong hopes about the bug phobia.

Helping Your Child

Hopefully some of the above give you a few ideas about how to help your kids with phobias or general fears.

Just remember to very gentle and slow with the exposure and they have to be the ones taking the initiative. If they aren’t willing to do it, that may just mean your first exposure step is too much – keep lowering it down until they are willing to do it without you needing to push them. It may be nothing more than taking one step toward the scary thing and then step right back again, but that’s enough.

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