In this FAQ series, we asked clinical psychologist Catherine Gallagher “how can I help my child do real world exposure?”
As parents, we will often find ourselves doing things, or requiring our children to do things, that they don't necessarily want to do. This happens more regularly than you might recognise; whether it is injections, eating foods they don’t like, going places publicly with them… So, when it comes to answering the question, it is simply a case of supporting them through an exposure experience in the real world, like those instances you have already helped them with.
To be successful in this, I believe that we need to know what we are doing, why we are doing it and also have the confidence to follow through, or at least to draw on when we are feeling a bit challenged by the task ahead of us. What’s more, if we are following through with some confidence, then our child will pick up on that, and they will recognise that this is something they are not going to be able to shy away from.
Another important aspect in this area for parents, I believe, is that we need to stand firm in the face of our child’s distress. As adults, we know that with each step along the way, there is going to be a degree of challenge and discomfort. We also understand that this isn't harm being done to our children, but a part of the process. We are supporting them to chip away at the worried brain's version of the truth, and so that is going to come with some discomfort. So, as parents, we need to support our children with a degree of firmness and have confidence that we are doing the right thing.
When it comes to a specific strategy which may support the outcome of real world exposure, there is one approach that could definitely have an impact - rewards. Used in a planned and structured manner, it can be useful to have rewards that are attached to the different steps, to recognise success and their efforts along the way. This is utilised all of the time in virtual reality and games, except the rewards are something that they can actually engage with physically. Plus you have much more control over them in the real world, so it can be a win-win!