Phobias in young children are incredibly common. Some children can recall slipping too far into the deeper end of the pool and now have a fear of the water. Others have been confronted by overly boisterous dogs and may be wary of going near any dogs at all. And some children may develop a fear of the dark due to a bump in the night or a scary story. Phobias often have their roots in one singular experience, and our jobs as adults is to help children see that the source of a phobia is rarely as scary as it seemed based on that one experience.
This can be particularly tricky when a child is insistent on avoiding the source of their phobia. Avoidance is very common among both children and adults with phobias. It is important to understand that a child with a phobia is often not avoiding the source of their phobia specifically, but rather the physical symptoms they endure when encountering the trigger. Children can feel a racing heart, an upset stomach, or tingly limbs when they feel acutely afraid, and these symptoms are a result of their fight or flight response. They are unpleasant symptoms and children and adults will do almost anything to avoid them. The only way to manage a child’s phobia is to confront this avoidance head on.
First, arm your child with information. If he is afraid of dogs because a large and enthusiastic dog once knocked him over, read about different dogs, sizes, and temperaments with him. Talk about why dogs jump up on people, why they bark, why puppies nibble, and why they can often invade personal space. Once your child understands the social reasons behind these dogs’ behavior, he may feel like he understands dogs a bit better, he will know what to expect when encountering them, and the mystery behind why dogs jump or bark will be taken away.
Then you’ll want to begin exposing your child to dogs using an approach similar to a stepladder. On each rung of the ladder, your job will be to help your child remain in the situation long enough for his symptoms, such as a racing heart, to subside, so that he leaves the situation feeling comfortable. First, ask a friend with a dog to help you. Visit this friend and ask her to keep her dog in a different room from your child. Being in the same house, hearing the dog bark, and watching the dog from a distance will be initially scary for your child, but eventually his anxious feelings will subside and he will feel comfortable. Stay in the situation until he feels comfortable, and then leave. The next visit may involve your child staying in the same room as the dog while the dog is held by his owner so that there is no contact between your child and the dog. Let your child look at the dog, ask questions, talk about the dog’s behavior, and after awhile, he will feel less anxious. On your next visit, allow your child to interact with the dog. At first, petting the dog may feel scary, or hearing the dog bark might cause tears to well up, but after some time seeing firsthand that a bark doesn’t hurt and contact is not so scary after all will have your child feeling more comfortable and his anxiety symptoms will subside.
It can be easy to simply let phobias go without confronting them, as the approach detailed above takes some time and work. But the joys of petting a dog, splashing in water, or snuggling up in bed at night are worth it. Helping your child confront his fears will build resilience and confidence.