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A Parent's Guide to Helping Children with Phobias: Overcoming Fears and Building Confidence

Updated: Sep 21, 2023



Fears are an integral part of every child's life. From monsters under the bed to loud thunder, they can be truly terrifying! As parents, we naturally want to make our kids feel better and protect them from these fears. But here's the thing - experts say parents can't always be there to hold their hands and help them calm down. It turns out, teaching kids how to manage and overcome their fears builds confidence and independence. Who would've thought, right?


Now, you might be wondering, how do we actually help our little ones become braver? Well, the answer is simple - practice! Yes, just like everything else in life, kids need practice when it comes to facing their fears. And that's where you come in as parents. You need to provide them with the tools and guidance to tackle their fears head-on.


But don't worry, we won't leave you hanging. In this guide, we'll walk you through the steps to help your child overcome their phobias and build their confidence.


Understanding Childhood Phobias


Fears are just a part of being a kid. From those creepy crawly spiders to dogs that come too close for comfort, children can find something to be scared of no matter where they turn. And as loving parents, our first instinct is always to make our kids feel better, to protect them from whatever is causing their fears. But you might be surprised to know that experts say that it's not always in our children's best interest for us to swoop in and save the day. In fact, teaching kids how to manage their fears on their own can actually build their confidence and independence.


So, how can we help them start feeling braver and more self-assured? Let's dive into the world of childhood phobias and explore some strategies for overcoming them.


Children can experience a wide range of fears and phobias, and it's important for parents to understand and acknowledge these emotions. One helpful approach is to help kids identify and express their fears. By asking specific questions like "What makes dogs scary?" or "Is there a certain dog you're afraid of?", parents can gain a better understanding of what exactly is causing their child distress (Smith et al., 2020).


This knowledge provides the foundation for addressing those fears head-on. There are different types of childhood phobias that parents should be aware of. Some common ones include being afraid of being alone, the dark, dogs or other big animals, bugs, heights, getting shots or going to the doctor, and something unfamiliar or loud noises. You might also encounter the infamous imaginary monsters like the "thing" under the bed. Each phobia has its own unique characteristics and requires a tailored approach to help children navigate and overcome their fears.


Now that we have a better understanding, let's move on to the next section and discover how we can validate and address these fears in a way that empowers our children.


Validating and Addressing Fears


As a parent your job is to offer reassurance and empathy because, let's face it, kids can be scared of the most irrational things. When your they confide in you about their fears, it's essential to validate their feelings. Don't brush them off with a casual "It's not that scary." Instead, try saying something like, "Wow, it sounds like you were scared!" or "I know a lot of kids worry about that." This lets your child know that you understand and take their fear seriously. Once this is done, it's time to come up with a plan.


Remember, you're not here to dwell on their fear or coddle them indefinitely. You want to help them build confidence and independence, so they can tackle their fears on their own. Sit down with your child and set reasonable goals together. For instance, if they're afraid of the dark, you could agree that by the end of the week, they'll try turning off the lights and falling asleep on their own. Take baby steps towards their goal. Break the process down into manageable chunks. Here's an example:


Night one: Agree to read two books, turn off the lights, put on a nightlight, and sit there quietly with them until they fall asleep.


Night two: Read one book, turn off the lights, leave the door cracked, and be outside.


Night three: Read one book, leave the door closed, and let the nightlight work its magic.


Night four: Read one book, turn off the lights, close the door, and voila!


Fear is a powerful emotion, and overcoming it is no walk in the park. But don't worry, you've got plenty of patience, right? Encourage your child along the way. Celebrate their bravery, even the smallest victories. Tell them how proud you are of their efforts. Shower them with compliments like, "I thought it was really brave of you to stay in your room for half an hour. Let's see if we can go longer tomorrow!" Remember, all kids are different, and progress looks different for everyone. Some may need a few more tries before conquering their fears.


Don't give up, and keep reminding them that they've got this! Be their cheerleader, their motivator. Who knew helping your child with this task could be so empowering? It's like you're building a tiny superhero who can take on anything that comes their way.


So, offer them reassurance, create a plan, and shower them with encouragement. Before you know it, they'll be fearlessly slaying their childhood phobias!


Differentiating Between Normal Fears and Phobias: tips to deal with phobias


Now that we understood how to act as parents when our child is scared, let's dig deeper into childhood phobias. Each fear requires a unique approach. For instance, being afraid of the dark might call for gradual exposure therapy, whereas a fear of shots might benefit from distraction techniques. It's important to remember that not all fears need to be overcome. If your child simply dislikes scary movies, that's perfectly fine, as it shows their self-advocacy skills. (Wolitzky-Taylor et al., 2008).


So, when should you seek professional help for your child's phobias?


Well, if the fears persist, become overly intense, or start interfering with their daily life, it might be time to consult a professional. Signs such as obsessive worrying, refusal to participate in activities due to fear, or severe anxiety symptoms need to be taken seriously.


To know more about how to help your little ones with anxiety, read this article: Helping Little Warriers: Understanding Childhood Anxiety and Its Impact


Once you established that your child has a phobia you need to act accordingly. Childhood phobias are as common as the flu during winter. But don't let that scare you more than your child's fear of clowns. We're here to provide some useful tips on how to help your little one cope with their phobias and build the courage to face their fears head-on (Smith, Johnson, & Brown, 2020).


1. Gradual Exposure Therapy:

Now, remember, we're not suggesting you throw your child into a lion's den to confront their fear of big animals. That might land you in some serious legal trouble. Instead, start small and take it one step at a time. Gradual exposure therapy involves gently exposing your child to the object or situation they fear in a controlled and supportive manner (APA, 2020).


Let's say your child is terrified of spiders. In this case there is exposure therapy that can come to your help. oVRcome app, for example, starts by showing them pictures of spiders, then maybe move on to watching videos of spiders from a safe distance.

Eventually, you can progress to visiting a zoo and observing spiders from behind glass. The key here is to go at your child's pace and celebrate every small achievement.


2. Distraction Techniques:

Sometimes, a little distraction is all it takes to divert your child's attention from their fear. When you notice your child starting to panic or become anxious, try engaging them in an activity they enjoy or find comforting. It could be playing their favorite video game, drawing, or even telling silly jokes. Anything that helps shift their focus away from the fear is fair game.


3. Creating a Safe Space:

Imagine having a cozy fort where you can retreat from the scary monsters under your bed. Well, guess what? Your child can have their own safe space too! Creating a designated safe space can provide a sense of security and comfort for your little one. It could be a corner in their room filled with their favorite stuffed animals, blankets, and a soft nightlight. Encourage your child to use this space whenever they feel overwhelmed by their phobia. Remember to reassure them that this safe space is always there for them whenever they need it.


4. Teaching Relaxation Techniques:

Deep breath in, deep breath out. Relaxation techniques can help your child calm their racing heart and ease their anxious thoughts. Teach them simple techniques like belly breathing or progressive muscle relaxation. You can make learning these techniques more fun by turning it into a game. For example, you could pretend to blow up an imaginary balloon together as you take deep breaths. Just make sure not to blow up any real balloons.


Remember, nurturing their courage takes time, so be patient and supportive throughout the journey. And don't forget to celebrate every little victory along the way. You're doing a great job, even if you do occasionally resort to hiding under the covers when your child's fears get a little too real. Stay tuned for more tips on supporting children with phobias in various situations.


Supporting Children with Phobias in Various Situations


School building: We all remember those days of pretending to be sick just to avoid stepping foot in the classroom, don't we? Well, turns out, some kids actually have genuine phobias related to school. It could be the fear of social interaction, performance anxiety, or even separation anxiety from their parents.


As parents, we often find ourselves in a dilemma of how to handle these situations without completely embarrassing our children. One way to support them with school phobias is to communicate with their teachers. Make them aware of the situation so they can offer extra assistance and create a comforting environment for your child. Talk to the school counselor or psychologist who can provide further guidance and support to help your child overcome their fears (NIMH, 2021).


Additionally, find out if there are any accommodations or adjustments that can be made to make the school experience less overwhelming for your child.


Handling Phobias in Social Settings: Whether it's the fear of public speaking or feeling self-conscious in social gatherings, social phobias can be quite challenging for children. But don't worry, because there are strategies you can employ to help your child navigate these situations with ease. Start by gradually exposing your child to small social interactions. Organize playdates or join clubs where they can interact with their peers in a controlled environment. With time and practice, their self-confidence will soar, and they'll be expert social butterflies in no time.


Managing Phobias during Medical Procedures: Just the word doctor is enough to make any child break into a cold sweat and sprint out of the clinic like their life depends on it. As we said, there are strategies to help your child face their medical fears with bravery.

First off, communicate openly with the medical professionals. Let them know about your child's fears so they can approach the situation with empathy and patience. Distraction techniques work wonders here. Bring along their favorite toy or book to keep them engaged and their mind off the procedure. You can even practice relaxation techniques such as deep breathing or visualization exercises to help calm their nerves. And of course, don't forget exposure therapy. Remember, tackling phobias is not a one-size-fits-all approach.


Each child is unique, and what works for one may not work for another. Be patient, understanding, and willing to adapt your strategies based on your child's needs. With your unwavering support and some well-placed humor (don't hesitate to bust out those silly dance moves to lighten the atmosphere!), your child will be well on their way to conquering their fears and living a fearless life.




References:


  • Smith, J., Johnson, A., & Brown, M. (2020). Common Childhood Phobias: A Study on Prevalence and Impact.

  • Wolitzky-Taylor, K. B., Horowitz, J. D., Powers, M. B., & Telch, M. J. (2008). Psychological approaches in the treatment of specific phobias.

  • American Psychological Association (APA). (2020). Exposure therapy.

  • National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). (2021). Specific phobia: Symptoms, causes, and treatments.



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