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Phobias and Fears in Children – Powerful Strategies To Try

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Phobias and Fears in Children - 5 Powerful Strategies For Parents To Try

Phobias happen when tame, harmless things turn into bullies. They take on a power they don’t deserve, in ways that often don’t make sense. The fear is real and persuasive, and for kids, they can be particularly debilitating. The good news is that phobias and fears in children are very manageable, and with the right guidance and strategies, kids can be empowered to move straight through the middle of the intense fears that get in their way.

What causes intense fears or phobias?

Often (but not always) when there are specific phobias or fears in children, there will be a starting point – something that happened that first made the fear come to life. It might be something that happened to the person, to someone else, or something that was heard about in a story, a movie or in the news. A fear of dogs for example, could have its beginnings in an actual scary encounter with a dog, hearing about someone being traumatised by a dog, or seeing a news story or a movie about a dog attack. That event is then generalised from something that happened because of one gnarly dog, to something that could happen with any dog. All dogs are then avoided in order to avoid the frightening feelings that is associated with them.

With a phobia, being in the presence of the feared thing will bring on a fight or flight reaction that is so strong as to send parts of the brain ‘offline’. This is because the brain believes so strongly in the threat, that it makes way for the person to act automatically, on raw instinct, without the intrusion of the part of the brain that would prefer to take time to analyse the situation and come up with a different plan. 

The avoidance that comes with phobias aren’t so much about avoiding the feared thing, but about avoiding the intense feelings that come with it. These feelings are connected to the fight or flight response, a physiological response that involves the release of neurochemicals to get the body ready to fight for its life or run for it. When the body doesn’t fight or flee, there is nothing to burn the neurochemicals. They build up and bring intense emotion and physical sensations (such as a racy heart, sick tummy, clammy hands) that feel awful. 

The once-harmless thing (the trigger) becomes the warning alarm that ‘bad feelings are found here’, and it drives avoidance, or ‘fear of the fear’. The trigger and the feelings become wrapped up in one scary bundle.

Avoidance is an adaptive, obvious solution, but it also comes with its own problems. 

The problem with avoidance.

When children show overwhelming fear or anxiety, it is completely understandable that loving parent would want to protect them from those bad feelings. Sometimes, whether through exhaustion or a lack of options, it can feel as though the only way to soothe their distress is to support the avoidance. This can lead to short-term relief for everyone (which sometimes is desperately needed!) but avoidance has a sneaky way of making things worse in the long run and keeping the anxiety well-fed. 

Avoidance takes away the opportunity for kids to learn that whatever is worrying them most likely won’t happen at all, and that if it does, they are resilient, strong and resourceful enough to cope. There is no opportunity to learn that fear is a warning, not a prediction. What kids learn instead is that the best way to deal with an unusual or confronting situation is to avoid it. The more something is avoided, the more that avoidance is confirmed as the only way to stay safe. Sometimes avoidance will be a sensible option, and sometimes it will interrupt their reach into the world.

Our brains are always changing to be the best possible brain for us. It does this through experience. When an experience is repeated, the brain strengthens the corresponding connections. It will change itself according to what it thinks we need, and it will base this around the behaviours we repeat. If avoidance is a repeated response, the brain will shape itself to support this. The good news is that as much as the brain changes itself passively, without any deliberate effort from us, by actively exposing the brain to certain experiences, we can also change it in ways that are more in line with what we need. It’s called experience-dependent neuroplasticity and it happens in all of us – kids too. Here’s how to help them with that.

Phobias and Fears in Children – What to do.

In the midst of high anxiety, the part of the brain that can rationalise and use logic and facts to feel safe is offline. For this reason, the best time to work with a fear or phobia is during times of calm. This is when all of the parts of the brain will be relaxed and receptive to any information you present, and more open to trying something different. Here’s how to do that:

  1. Fill in the missing pieces with plenty of information.

    Younger kids are still establishing how the world works. They’re finding their way around cause and effect – that the effect follows the cause isn’t as obvious to newbies. It might be obvious to you that playing near a vacuum clear doesn’t mean you’ll disappear into the end of it when it gets too close, but for a little person, it’s not so obvious. Show them how it works. A button will fit into the end of a vacuum, but a shoe won’t, nor will a foot, a chair, a car, or a person. Even for older kids – for anyone – the more they know (stats, facts), the less they’ll worry. If they are scared of storms, talk to them about where thunder and lightning come from. Give them as much information as they need to feel safe. 

  2. Be careful not to overreact.

    Validate what your child is feeling, but be careful not to overreact to the fear. If you scoop your child up every time he or she becomes scared, you might inadvertently communicate that there is something to be scared of. It might also communicate that the only way to feel safe is in your arms. In your arms will always be their favourite place to be, but let the cuddle be a reward for brave behaviour, not an inadvertent one for avoidant behaviour. Rather than over-comforting, gently talk to them about what you see, ‘That balloon scared you when it popped didn’t it.’

  3. ‘You can only work what’s happening now, but your ability to do that is powerful.’

    Phobias are a curly combination of the past (‘I know dogs are scary because one has scared me before’) and the future (‘what if the dog bites/the balloon pops/a monster comes out when you turn off the light.’) Bring your child back to now. This is particularly important to deal with the generalisation from one frightening event, to all similar ones. Talk about the differences between this event and the one that scared them. 

  4. Rework the association.

    The problem with intense fears is that they become associated with intense feelings and memories – bad ones. Rework this association by pairing something fun or relaxing with whatever it is that’s causing the trouble. An example of where this might come in handy is for children who have an intense fear of thunderstorms. During a thunderstorm, if your little person is scared, acknowledge this and let them know that it’s normal. Catch the feeling first (they need to know you’re taking them seriously), then redirect – encourage him or her to watch a funny movie with you, or to colour in while listening to relaxing music, even if it’s through headphones. Eventually, when they’re ready, you can try working up to a game – every time there’s lightning, someone has to tell a funny joke (have plenty ready) and everyone eats M&M’s until the thunder cracks – or something. Anything that takes their focus away from their scary thoughts or memories or feelings and replaces it with something positive will help to dilute the negative associations.

  5. Storytelling.

    Even though fears and phobias seem irrational, there will often be a very rational story that gave them life in the first place. The generalisation to other similar triggers (‘all dogs are scary’/ ‘all thunder means danger’) often happens automatically and without awareness. Telling the story of that initial event can interrupt this.

    We humans have been telling our stories for thousands of years. It’s how we heal and it’s how we connect. With our knowledge of the brain ever-expanding, we now have insight into why storytelling is such a fundamental part of being human. It brings meaning to our experience and soothes our strong emotional and physical reactions.

    This happens on a brain level. Memories and emotions live in the right brain, but the logical rational factual detail of the world lives in the left. We need both sides of the brain to work together, and when a response seems ‘out of fit’ to a situation, it’s a fairly clear sign that the right brain may have taken over and disconnected from the left. Storytelling reconnects the left and the right side of the brain, helping to make sense of overwhelming emotions and memories.

    The dominance of the right brain during times of intense fear is automatic. The reintroduction of the left brain will have to be done deliberately. Encouraging a child to tell their own story of the first time they remember feeling the specific fear can be a powerful strategy. Without left brain logic, the automatic response becomes, ‘All dogs can hurt people because they can all bite. I know because I’ve seen it/heard about it/had it happen to me.’ Eventually, with left brain logic and facts involved, the response will shape towards, ‘this dog is okay because my parents have said that it’s a friendly dog. It’s sitting calmly and I can see other people patting it. It’s different to the dog that scared me because it is a different colour and it’s smaller and it’s ears are bigger.’ 

    Gently start them off, but if they don’t want to talk respect that. Try, ‘Can you tell me about the first time a dog scared you?’ If they are old enough, encourage them to write about it. Let the words and ideas flow. Encourage them to name the feelings they experienced, or the feelings that come up for them when they tell their story or when they are in a similar situation now (such as when they see a dog). Name what you see as they speak. ‘You look scared when you talk about that.’ Research from the Yale Centre of Emotional Intelligence has found that when an emotion is named, the intense emotional circuitry in the right brain is soothed and tamed. This happens regardless of age.

    There is often the concern that by talking about the experience, it will make things worse, but given what we know about the brain this just isn’t the way it is. We know this intuitively. When something happens, we are often driven to find somebody close to us to talk about it. If the experience isn’t talked about, the brain will be driven to find other ways to make sense of things. Phobias are one of the ways this can happen. It can also happen by way of dreams. During dreams, the brain ‘replays’ information connected to unresolved issues, to try to sort through and find meaning and closure. 

  6. The Stepladder.  


    This technique is commonly used in therapy as a way to gently expose kids to the feared situation or object so they can become less sensitive to it and learn a different response. With a phobia, the feared object feels overwhelming and completely unapproachable. Step by gentle step, gradual exposure helps to build familiarity and confidence, so your child can feel more empowered and less helpless in the face of their fear.  It is critical that this is done gently, and that your child is not pushed to go further than they feel they are able to. Here’s how:

•  Get them on board with the plan.

Getting your child on board with the plan is critical – they need to be the hero in this story. They also need to be assured that they will have full control, and that you won’t be asking them to do anything unsafe.

 ‘I know that you’re really scared of dogs and I understand why. Some dogs are scary, but most of them aren’t. At the moment your brain is telling you that every dog you see is probably going to hurt you. That must be really frightening for you. It’s not your brain’s fault, it’s just trying to keep you safe. It’s kind of taken over though, and what we need to do is to make you the boss of your brain again. We can do that and I want to talk to you about a plan that we’re going to do together – as a team.

We’re not going to do anything you don’t want to do, and we’re definitely not going to do anything that could hurt you, but for this to work, you will need to do some brave things – but the decision will always be yours. The plan will have different steps. You can say no to any of those steps if they feel too big, and we can find something else that feels better for you. At the end of this, the things that feel really scary won’t feel as scary any more.’

•  Explain how a stepladder works.

 

When you have them curious about the plan, or at least open to listening to it, explain how a stepladder works. Start with an example using something that other kids might be scared of, but which your child is fine with. Keep letting them know there will be an out. As soon as your child feels that they might be forced to do something they feels frightening for them, their fight or flight response will kick in, overwhelming and sending offline the part of their brain that can receive the information and put it to good.

‘So this is how it works, and remember, I’m just going to explain it – it doesn’t mean you have to do it. Let’s say there was someone who was scared of heights. This would make playing on slippery slides very tricky – all that fun that would be missed! What do you think they could do to make themselves more okay with climbing the slippery slide ladder? How could they get used to being higher on a ladder little bit by little bit?’

See what they come up with (and remember, kids with anxiety often have a beautifully quirky way of looking at things). This process of planning and analysing will be strengthening the connections in their pre-frontal cortex – the part of the brain that is needed to bring calm during anxiety, but which usually steps back at just the wrong time.

Hopefully, they will say something like, ‘Well first ask them to climb onto a little step, then when they get used to that, ask them to go higher and higher until they get used to it.’ If they come up with something like this, they understand the stepladder approach. If they come up with something completely out of left, like, ‘Just tell them not to go where there are any slippery slides and then they won’t get sad about not being able to go on them’, then you might need to get involved with a little prompting.

Make it personal.

 

When you feel as though they understand the idea of gradual exposure, talk about how they can do this with their own fear or phobia. Ask them what they would like to be more okay with. Remember, something is only a problem if it is getting in the way for them. Give them a little prompting if you need to:

‘Do you think it would be good for you not to be so worried about school? Perhaps we could look at that. I think it’s something you could become really brave within no time. What do you think?’

Break it down.

 

Break the fear into smaller worries and steps that your child can deal with. It’s really important that you involve them in this process. They’ll be much more likely to stick to the plan if they’ve been heavily involved in coming up with it. Start with a mild version of whatever it is that is causing the fear. Make it super-easy to start with. 

 

So, if they are afraid of being on their own in their own bed at night, work with your child to come up with the steps. The first step might be leaving a little light on all night with you staying beside them in their bed for 10 minutes and then checking on them every 3 minutes. Do this until they feel okay with this step then move to the next one, perhaps laying beside them then checking every 5 minutes. Then, when they’re ready, move to the next step, maybe a quick cuddle and checking every 10 minutes. Put the steps in order from easiest at the bottom of the ladder to hardest at the very top of the ladder.

 

Here is an example for someone who is scared of dogs:

    >> Start with a book about dogs. Spend some time looking at the pictures.

    >> Move to a fluffy toy dog. Touch it and hold it with them.


    >> Watch a movie about a friendly dog.

    >> Hold a friendly little dog (a real one) and encourage them to look at it.


    >> Hold a little dog and encourage them to touch it.

    >> Let them hold the little dog.


    >> Encourage them to look at a bigger friendly dog.


    >> Encourage them to pat the bigger friendly dog.

Keep a very small distance between steps.

It’s really important to make sure that the steps aren’t too far apart. The smaller the distance between the steps, the easier it will be for your child to come on board with the plan, and the greater the likelihood of success. If the steps are too far apart, the risk is that they will lose confidence when they are unable to complete the step – and that won’t be good for anyone. 

There’s no hurry.

Take as many steps as your child needs to get to the top of the ladder comfortably, and spend as much time as you need to on each step. There’s no hurry. Going gently is critical. Repeat the steps as many times as it takes for your child to feel confident enough to move to the next step. Every time they accomplish the step, the experience is changing their brain and strengthening the parts that support resilience, confidence and brave behaviour. It will also be imprinting over the memory of the experience on that step as a scary one. Rather than it being scary, it becomes tolerable as new experiences feed into the right brain with new memories and new feelings, such as success and pride. Your child will learn that the more they do something, the less anxious they will feel. Repetition leads to familiarity which over time will decrease their anxiety.  

If they get stuck between steps.

If your child becomes stuck between steps, it may be because there is too much distance between the steps. In this case, work with your child to come up with possible ways to break the step down even more. If your child tries a step and fails, this might take affect their confidence a little and send them back. 

If this happens, don’t worry. Check how your child is making sense of this. Are they telling themselves that they ‘just can’t do this stuff,’? ‘That there’s no point’? If this is happening, shift the focus away from them and onto the behaviour. They are really capable of getting this, but perhaps there was too much of a gap between the steps. They can do it, but they just can’t do it YET. It might just take a little more time, and that’s always okay. It doesn’t matter how long it takes to get to the top of the ladder. What matters is that they’re moving closer and closer towards it. 

Encourage them to see it from a different angle by putting them in the position of bystander, rather than as the star of the show. This will help to access a different part of their brain. What would they say to someone else who wasn’t able to complete that particular step just yet? What would that person need to hear to be okay to try again next time? Some steps will just take a little more time and effort than others, and that’s to be expected.

Make it worth their effort.

Stepladders can be challenging for anyone – especially kids – though they will have it in them to be brave. Your child might not see any good reason to put themselves through it. For your child, it might seem like a perfectly reasonable option to avoid whatever it is they’re scared of for the rest of their lives. Completely understandable. 

You might not be able to change the way they feel about taking their steps but you might be able to influence their behaviour. This is where rewards might come in handy. We all need a reason to do the tough stuff. Kids are no different, and ‘you’ll feel better in the future’ might not wash as a good enough reason. They might need an added boost. When they aren’t able to see the long-term benefit (and it’s completely reasonable that they might not be able to) we need to give them enough to make it worth their effort in the short-term. Remember, even the biggest reward won’t work if the fear or anxiety is too big. The steps have to be small. 

Rewards don’t need to be excessive and they don’t need to be material. Things like time with you, doing something fun or staying up later might be enough to get them over the line. The reward has to be given as close as possible to when the step is achieved, and it should only be handed out if the step is achieved. All attempts deserve to be acknowledged – they won’t always make it on the first go, but there are other rewards for that – praise, cuddles etc. 

And finally …

It’s important to keep in mind that the goal isn’t to completely get rid of the anxiety, but to make it manageable. Your child might still feel a little anxious about the dark or being away from you, for example, but it will no longer get in the way for them or for you. Having a little bit of anxiety is normal, healthy and realistic. Part of living well is understanding that sometimes we do feel anxious, scared, lonely, sad, angry, and that a manageable amount is okay. The problem is when it takes over that it gets in the way. 

We don’t want to take away the normal avoidance behaviour that will protect them and keep them safe. What we want to do is to help them to manage the fear and to not be squeezed out of life because their anxiety is so intrusive. We want to teach them that life isn’t as scary as it feels sometimes and that they are amazingly resilient little beings with incredible ability to cope, even when they don’t feel like it.

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34 Comments

Annerien

Hi
I have a son who suffers from fear of tasting new food. I Googled it, and it seems not be so rare. It even has a name, Food Neophobia. I would love to hear your thoughts on this subject

Reply
Hey Sigmund

I’m not familiar with this particular phobia. I do know that it’s not unusual for young kids to have to try something new 7-10 times before they feel okay with it, but a phobia is more severe than that. The mechanisms behind phobias are generally similar, even though the actual phobia may be different. It would still be worth trying the strategies, but of course if its taking its toll on your son’s health, it might also need a little extra help from a professional.

Reply
Amanda

When my sons are scared of something realistic, I think it is easy to handle by using factual information. But when they fear totally unrealistic things like vampires or mean little ax-carrying bunnies, I’m at a loss. Where do these types of fears originate and how can I most effectively help them deal?

Reply
Hey Sigmund

These are really common fears for kids between about 4-12 years old. The are a sign that your kids can think abstractly – even when something isn’t there, they can think about it. This is a great thing. It also means that they probably have really creative minds. This is also a great thing, except when they’re using them to scare themselves witless. They generally come from negative information (tv, stories, other kids). Generally these fears disappear with age, but in the meantime they can be distressing for everyone. When you can, give them what they need to feel safe. If they need you to check under the bed or in the cupboards, there’s no harm in doing that.

If these fears tend to come out around bed time, try the stepladder for sleeping. If you can, make sure they can see the door from their bed. From an evolutionary sense, we tend to be more restful when we can see the entry points in a room. Finally, let them be ‘experts’. Ask them what vampires or ninja bunnies are scared of. You might need to give them some suggestions – gentle music? night lights? Monster spray (water with a couple of drops of lavender oil (or something else calming) that you spray around the room or the bed before bedtime. If they suggest something else, see how this can be incorporated into the routine.

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Hema

Very interesting article. My 13 year old daughter has been scared of pigeons since she was 8. She does not remember the origin of the fear. She knows pigeons are harmless, she’s read about them …but when they get near her, she is traumatised!

Reply
Hey Sigmund

This sounds like something that she might grow out of with time. It’s not unusual for kids to have specific fears. It’s interesting that it is a specific type of bird. If it has been triggered by a specific event, it may have happened when she was little so she may not have a memory of it.

Reply
Sydney

I started reading wondering how I could help my daughter with her dreams but this somehow ended up reassuring me of my own anxieties towards a woman who intimidates me (by staring at me).

It all comes down to moving up the ladder and slowly slowly with baby steps feeling better.

I’ve avoided the woman for a while and now I’m starting to realize that small exposure makes me realize she can look at me all she wants and I can laugh back at her without her really harming me physically or my ego (feeling weak I can’t intimidate back).

So Thank You as I feel a little bit more powerful today.

Reply
Sue

Hi,
Thanks for the article, it was really interesting and helpful. My daughter has xenophobia and I’m struggling to know how to put your advice into practice. (Not much positive about vomit!) It’s very severe to the extent that she is struggling to be in school and refuses to eat or even drink water when she is there. She’s lost quite a lot of weight, we a tree e trying to get professional help but it’s taking forever.
I would really appreciate some guidance, I’m so worried about her.

Reply
Hey Sigmund

Sue you’re doing the right thing by getting your daughter a little extra support by way of a professional. In the meantime, try the strategies in this article http://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-in-kids/. There is a good reason for your daughter not wanting to eat or drink or feeling as though she is going to vomit. The explanation is in the article and the more your daughter can understand this, the more empowered she will feel. This will help to decrease ‘anxiety about the anxiety’. You will find other articles here with strategies that you can use at home http://www.heysigmund.com/category/being-human/anxiety/. Another important thing to try would be to get your daughter into a regular mindfulness practice. This has been proven to strengthen the brain against anxiety. There are ideas for ways to do this with kids here http://www.heysigmund.com/mindfulness-for-children-fun-effective-ways-to-strengthen-mind-body-spirit/.

Reply
Hey Sigmund

Oh that makes so much more sense! The reason she has this fear of vomiting may be because she has experienced nausea unexpectedly before. Nausea happens because during the fight or flight response, the body shuts down digestion temporarily to save energy for fight or flight. This can cause nausea. This is the article you need http://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-in-kids/. Explain to your daughter why she feels the way she does. Learning to breathe strong deep breaths will help because it will trigger the relaxation response which will reverse fight or flight, which will stop the feelings of nausea. Strong breathing is really hard to do in the thick of anxiety, so it’s important for your daughter to practice when she is calm. Try to do it every day. The more she practices, the easier it will be to access her strong breathing when she needs it. Tips for that are also in the article.

Reply
Sue chiu

Thanks so much for your help. That makes a lot of sense. Struggling to try and get her back into school tomorrow so will have a chat about this tonight and will start working on it. Thank you for taking time to answer it’s really appreciated. Sue

Reply
Suze

Thanks for a great article. My son (5) doesn’t like having his photo taken and I’m at a loss as how to handle it. At first I thought he was just being a typical, determined little boy but lately I’m noticing a fear in him – he’s not acting out, he’s genuinely afraid. He can’t tell me why, I don’t know if it’s because he doesn’t know himself or what? Any advice on how to tackle this one?

Reply
Hey Sigmund

Suze this sounds like it might be a perfect one for a stepladder. Start by letting him take his own photos of things other than himself – pets? you? siblings? toys? (maybe buy him a little disposeable camera to play with?) then photos of himself that aren’t his face – his hands, his feet, then let him play with taking photos of himself and deleting them, then printing them out. Talk to him about being the family photographer for a while and about getting an album to put his photos in. Remember there’s no hurry for this to happen and it’s likely that he will grow out of it at some point. In the meantime, let him take his time getting used to taking photos and being in them, but by giving him the control over this.

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bette backer

thank for responding so quickly to me there is alot to read and absorb for me but im going to take a couple of days to get this plan together and i will let you know are progress thank you again for your help

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Annie

Thanks for sharing your advice through this wonderful article. I can truly relate to it as my 10 year old daughter suddenly developed this phobia of ‘negative’ or violent world events or issues she hears about on the tv, radio, newspaper or daily conversation. Things like terrorism, war, accident, lightning & thunder storm and natural disasters are her main source of worry. Sometimes she will cover her ears & start to yell. How should I using the stepladder method to handle this situation? Thank you very much.

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

These sort of things can be really frightening for kids because they don’t have the context. The stepladder method probably isn’t the best method for the real world trauma that they hear about in the news. What might be more helpful is speaking with her about it so she has all of the information she needs to feel safe. It’s very understandable that she is scared of these things – they’re scary for all of us. Let her know how her situation is different, and help her to put things in context. For terrorism and war for example, speak with her about how there are so many people who are working so hard to keep her and the country she lives in safe. For natural disasters, explain why where she lives isn’t likely to be hit by the natural disasters she is worried about. Earthquakes and tornados, for example happen in certain parts of the world. The news can be one of the scariest shows on television because it is real life, but often delivered in a way that is out of context. Give her the information she needs to feel safe, and to feel as though her world is a little more predictable.

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Jennifer

Thank you so much for your article. It is so reassuring that there is something we can try to help our son with his fears. My son is very frightened of movies. He is ok with most television cartoons that have no anxious content. His Kindergarten has shown numerous Disney movies as well as innocuous cartoons on windy and rainy days since he started school. He was fine at first as they were showing only television cartoons. When they started showing movies (5 in 2 months), which all have anxious scenes, he became very scared about any time there may be anything shown at school. The school thinks I need to get him used to movies which I will try to do slowly but I want to ask them if they can just stop showing movies in class. The tv cartoons are fine and may help him with feeling all shows aren’t scary. Is this fair for me to ask them if they can stop showing at least movies during rainy day recess?

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

This is a difficult one. One of the things that can make anxious kids more anxious is when we change the environment too much for them, rather than helping them to develop skills that will help them deal with the environment. Even though it feels as though it is supporting them, it’s actually supporting their anxiety. It does this by teaching them that the only way for them to cope is by avoiding the things that feel dangerous or threatening. The trouble is that it takes away the opportunities for them to learn that they need to learn that not everything that feels scary, is actually scary, and that they are more resourceful, resilient, and braver than they think they are.

I completely understand why you would want to ask them to show movies during rainy day recesses, but I’m not sure that it’s helpful for your son, provided of course that the movies are child appropriate. It’s likely that while he is at school, there will be all sorts of things he encounters that will feel scary for him. While it is reasonable to assume that people will bend a little to accommodate us, it’s not a healthy lesson for kids to learn that the environment will fully accommodate them. This is when they can start to feel a greater need to try to control the environment and the future, which can really feed into anxiety.

Try the stepladder approach for your son’s fear of movies. If you can, speak to the school about the movies they might show and start with them. If you can start with one that has book versions, and that you can buy the characters as soft toys. Read him the books, buy him the toy versions, and work up to movies. Start with 10 minutes of the movie, then work up. Get him on board with the plan as it explains in the article. Let him know that you know how brave he is and that you absolutely believe he can cope with the gentle stretches of his limits that you’re going to come up with together. When you believe he can cope, it will make it easier for him to believe it. It’s important that the steps in the stepladder are small, otherwise it will feel overwhelming for him. When it comes to the movies at school, work on him with some strategies to make things easier while he is ‘finding his brave’. Perhaps sitting up the back of the room, or with a teacher, or speak to the teachers about letting him read a book or listen to music or a story with headphones while the movie is happening so he isn’t having to engage fully with the material in the movie.

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Heather

My five year old daughter suffers from anxiety and phobias and we just got a referral from her pedeatrician for a psychiatrist. I have spent hours on the phone calling to make appointments, and I keep getting told that nobody is taking on new patients. In the meantime, my daughter will not sleep at night, even with melatonin. She is afraid of many things and has phobias about them hurting her. The one she is stuck on right now is bees. She won’t even take a shower because the drain looks like a beehive to her. She also thinks that the bottom of our office chair looks like a spider so she will not go in that room. I am completely willing to try the step ladder strategy, but I also believe that when she’s done with bees, a new phobia will pop up. And I cannot seem to get an appointment with a doctor, which isn’t fair. I’m also frustrated with bedtime because it’s an hours-long process and she wakes up several times and refuses to go back to bed. Are we supposed to sleep in her room? She’s going to start kindergarten in September and I’m immensely worried that new phobias and anxieties will be debilitating to her.

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

This sounds so frustrating for you. The stepladder approach would definitely be worth a try. If new phobias keep popping up, they might need another stepladder. These will all be teaching your daughter important skills to self-soothe when she is feeling anxious. When she has a fear, acknowlege that, but then let her know you believe she is capable of brave behaviour. You might already be doing this, but sometimes great parents who are loving and wonderfully supportive and who want the best for their kids can provide comfort without the balance of expectation of brave behaviour. This is completely understandable, but the risk is that the children learn that the only way to feel safe is through avoidance of the things that scare them. The idea is to give them the comfort they need, but at the same time encourage them towards brave behaviour. ‘I know it feels scary but I also know how brave you are. Let’s start by going into the room for 10 seconds. I’ll come with you … or whatever will be not so scary that your daughter will flatly refuse, but which wills stretch her a little.

In relation to her sleeping, if you start sleeping in her room it will likely be difficult for you to change this in the future. The risk is that it will create a dependency which isn’t good for any of you. Here is an article about sleep that might be helpful http://www.heysigmund.com/getting-kids-to-go-to-sleep-and-stay-asleep/.

I can hear how difficult this is for everyone and how different you want this to be for your daughter. Definitely give the stepladder approach a try, but be patient. It might take a while and it will be important for the steps to be close and gentle. Everything you do is teaching your daughter important skills to manage her anxiety that will hold her well as she gets older.

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Diane

Is there a chance a 4.5 year old can develop a fear of interacting with peers? My son has a delay in his social skills. He is an only child and we do not have family or friends that we have regular play dates with. He attends preK and they are working with him on initiating and sustaining play with peers. I’m wondering if a scaffolding approach may work. He is in karate and is in a learn to skate program. We attend birthday parties but those environments are tough to begin with as far as being overwhelming. We get together with a family who has a girl 1 year older than him. She’s a good role model in some aspects but she can be overbearing for him. She likes to see him though and sees the good in him, so that is a plus. There are other kids in his class that have recently been asking for play dates with him. He always shows interest in playing with others, i.e., wants to invite kids over, etc. He is cautious with most things. I’m just wondering if a child can actually develop a phobia about interacting with others.

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

It sounds as though your son might be a little anxious about interacting with others. This is not at all unusual and not necessarily a problem. Many kids take a while to ‘warm up’ with others, but when they do, they are very socially competent and well-liked. At 4.5 your son is still learning so much about himself, other people and the world around him. It’s okay if it takes him a little while to feel comfortable with this.

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maureen

So, my daughter has a fear of watching movies. I mean she will leave the room, when I try to have a movie night at home. I only let my kids watch movies made for kids. She won’t watch new movies like Sing or Moana. She will watch movies like frozen or Disney Fairies. And now she has a problem at school. At lunch they show movies and sometimes she will not eat and just dissapear to the bathroom the whole time. Sometimes she doesn’t want to go to school and starts crying.

I am not exactly sure how to deal with this kind of phobia and I am hoping for some insights. Any ideas?

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maureen

I forgot to mention, she is 6 and in first grade. She is otherwise an excellent student, her teachers said she is already past first grade learning and have been teaching second grade curriculum.

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

Let her talk about what happens to her when she watches movies, and try to understand the difference between the movies she watches and the ones she won’t. The more she talks about it, the more clarity she will get around exactly what it is that scares her. Then, try the stepladder approach outlined in the article. It might take a little while to shift, but do the stepladder gradually and gently and get her on board with the plan. For example, start with five minutes of a movie that she chooses that she is reluctant to watch, and go from there.

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belle

Hello, My four year old son has always been worried about fire alarms but it has escalated lately and it is causing him anxiety at pre school. Our smoke alarm went off yesterday and now he refuses to stay inside. Should I try a stepladder approach?

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

I think a stepladder would be great for your son. The ‘unknown’ about fire alarms is likely adding to your son’s anxiety about fire alarms. For him, they might feel unpredictable and it’s possible that he has an ‘anxiety about the anxiety’. Hi might remember the feelings that come with the siren whenever he is exposed to them, but without the context he needs to understand that he is safe even if they are making a noise. If you haven’t already, try to explain what a fire alarm does. If your son is really resistant to hearing any of this, try to incorporate it in a stepladder. It might start with a story about a fire alarm, and how it’s there to help people stay safe. Then it might move to looking at one from a distance, taking one apart so he can see how it works, letting him push the tester button when the battery is out, hearing the noise from a long distance away (you might need to go to a part for this one), and progressively getting closer etc.

The other important thing he needs to understand is why fire alarms make him feel like this. Here is an article that will help you explain why he feels the way he does when he hears the sound. It’s his brain thinking there is trouble, and organising his body for fight or flight http://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-in-kids/.

It’s not at all uncommon for kids your son’s age to be frightened of loud noises. In the meantime though, it can be distressing for everyone – I completely understand. The more information your little man can have about what a fire alarm is and how it works, the less mysterious and unpredictable it will feel for him. Give him as much information as you can about what happens to him during anxiety and also about how fire alarms work. All the best with these strategies. I hope they are able to bring your son some comfort.

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Michelle

My daughter just turned 12. She started with a fear of sleeping anywhere if I’m not with her, but, the fears are escalating to all areas.

We are working with a behavioural therapist and doing different actions. She is afraid to be by herself. Once a day, she is supposed to go into a room by herself (a very safe well lit room) for just 5 minutes and do anything she wants.

The steps we’ve done for sleeping without me included: started with me laying with her for a few minutes, moved to just kissing her goodnight and now she goes herself to bed.

I have also shared with her that it’s okay to have fears, but, they aren’t her. They are outside of her. When a fear comes to her, she can name it and say, “Okay, I see that you are here again. It’s okay, but, I want you to go away for now. I’ll put you in a box and we’ll take you out at another time”. Then later she can write down the fears she had for the day.

What do you think of these types of things?

My only “fear” is that the therapist is having her do too many actions at one time. (1) Write down fears everyday (2) 25 breaths every day (3) Use 5 senses when noticing any image, etc. etc. (4) Be in a room for 5 minutes everyday

It starts to exhausted thinking of all the things she has to do.

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Karen Young

I think these sound like great strategies and they all make a lot of sense. Have confidence in your daughter’s capacity to cope with the tasks the therapist has given her, as well as the number of strategies. Part of these strategies involve your daughter opening up to the very empowering realisation that she is able to do hard things and that if things feel too much, she can find a way to also deal with that. This is something new for your daughter, and she might stumble and she might find them difficult for a while – but she’ll be okay. If you feel unsure, she will feel unsure. Kids with anxiety tend to be really empathic and sensitive to what other people are thinking or feeling, particularly their parents. If you have any anxiety at all around her doing the tasks the therapist has set, your daughter could very easily pick up on this and start to doubt herself. On the other hand, you will also be able to influence her resilience. You have a strong and wonderful connection with your daughter, and when you believe she will cope, it will be enough for her to start to believe it too. If the number of tasks feels overwhelming, perhaps suggest a list so she can keep track of what she has done and what she has yet to do. I think they are great strategies though. It sounds as though they are working too, particularly in relation to sleep. Anxiety can hang on hard, particularly if it’s been there for a while. The changes might be slow and gentle, but that’s okay. It doesn’t matter how quickly your daughter moves forward, as long as she’s moving forward.

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Anne

My eleven year old is senselessly scared of any type of insect. She had an insident about two years ago where she was stung by a wasp that she touched by accident when it was in her hair. After the incident she was a bit scared, but not too much and overcame it. Now suddenly she won’t go in her bathroom as there are mosquitoes sometimes. It escalated to even flies and the wasps. She doesn’t want to ho alone in the kitchen, outside or to her golf lessons. It did not help when the golfing instructor told a scary story about a golfer who got stung by a whole swarm of bees, but managed to play great golf after that!! It is getting out of hand now!! I will try the stepladder method.

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Amy

My 6 yr old son has a severe blood phobia. He’s ok with other people’s blood but if he sees a drop of his own blood his anxiety completely takes over. He turns white, sweats, struggles to breathe, vomits, and then faints. Everyone who has witnessed his reaction has been shocked by it’s intensity. He avoids doing anything that might possibly cause him to cut himself, like sports or even running, but he recently started having the occasional nosebleed. He is becoming a clingy nervous wreck because he can’t predict or avoid a nosebleed. I don’t know how to help him.

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Karen Young

Amy I completely understand why this would be frightening for your son. If you can, explain as much as you can about why he gets nosebleeds. You might need a doctor to help you. The more information you can give him about what causes nosebleeds, the less threatening they will feel. Then, use the explanation in this article to explain his physical symptoms http://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-in-kids/. Hopefully this will help him to make sense of his experience and help him to feel more in control of what’s happening to him.

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