Can You Give Your Kids a Phobia?
I have a thing about spiders. I didn’t grow up having any particular thoughts about them, other than the vague notion that they were benign or even helpful (Charlotte’s Web was great for spider PR).
In those days, my high tolerance for critters was probably due to the fact that I spent so much time in the arroyos near my house, which put me in proximity to things like lizards, horny toads (yes, this is what we called them in Santa Fe), and caterpillars.
Subsequently I left the high desert and lived in highly populated, urban areas. There, I was not concerned with creepy, crawly things. Parking tickets? Yes. Getting run over by careening, wayward taxis? Yes. But other than rats and pigeons, there were few living things to contend with.
Now that I’m back in Santa Fe, things have changed. I am surrounded by black widows. They stare at me while I sleep, and wait to bite my toes when I slide them, unsuspectingly, into a pair of shoes I’ve not worn for months.
The other day, I found a black widow and its web right next to the double stroller–the same stroller that carries my innocent, non-black widow-fearing daughters to the park, their alabaster flesh exposed, smelling juicy and inviting to the nasty, 8-legged beast.
Though my reaction doesn’t constitute a full-blown phobia (there is some jumpiness and heart acceleration, but I don’t run screaming for the hills), I realize that is it disproportionate to the danger at hand. Meaning I can tolerate seeing an Orb Weaver on a rosebush, but I wouldn’t invite it inside for tea.
To find out whether my behavior might actually cause a phobia in my kids, I turned to my very smart friend, Alisa. To the rest of the world, she is Alisa Robinson, Ph.D., co-creator of the Anxiety Clinic for Kaiser Permanente’s San Diego region. She has facilitated groups to teach children, adolescents, and adults how to deal with anxiety using cognitive behavioral and mindfulness techniques. In short, she knows this stuff.
In response to my question about whether kids can “catch” a phobia (or merely an exaggerated fear response) from their parents, here is what Alisa said:
We know from early research on classical conditioning that children can be taught to fear an object. A boy famously referred to as “Little Albert” was conditioned to fear a white rat when experimenters paired the viewing of the rat with a loud noise. In a similar manner, children can learn phobic reactions to objects and situations by watching their parents – especially if the child is young.
However, not all phobias are learned and some people may have a genetic predisposition to developing a phobic reaction to situations and objects. For example, some research has indicated that individuals who are phobic about blood have a more sensitive vagus nerve reflex and therefore have a stronger physiological reaction when they see blood, and may be more likely to pass out.
(Nice–I’m going to remember that “sensitive vagus nerve reflex” thing next time one of those vampires from United Blood Services tries to guilt me into giving blood.)
Children can certainly learn to be anxious from watching their parents, even if the parent doesn’t have a full-blown phobia. If a child sees a parent overreact to anxiety provoking situations, they often are more likely to respond in a similar manner.
So, the bottom line is that parents’ behavior matters, although it’s possible there are genetic factors at play, too. For me, this means that I need to take it down a notch if I want my daughters to have a somewhat normal relationship with the arachnid world. And with needles. And with snakes. And with…
I could go on, but who has the time?
P.S. Dear spider aficionados and arachnid defenders, please do not email me about this piece. I KNOW that black widows get a bad rap, and that most people, contrary to popular belief, do not die from their bites. Likewise, I know that black widows don’t typically camp out in shoes (that would be the much scarier brown recluse) or watch people when they are sleeping (bedbugs do this). I was taking some poetic license.
So give me a break. Same goes for United Blood Services workers—I was JOKING. I strongly encourage those of you who like needles to donate your blood. Like every day.
Photo by Steve Velo via Flickr’s Creative Commons License
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Udall-Weiner, D. (2010). Can You Give Your Kids a Phobia?. Psych Central. Retrieved on January 21, 2017, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/food-family/2010/12/10/can-you-give-your-kids-a-phobia/