Many children have fears. For most children, the fear does not cause any problems with their functioning. Some fears develop into phobias that prevent children from participating in their day-to-day life or at worst, living a normal life. If your child has a persistent fear, you will know how difficult it can be to handle without going into full scale avoidance mode.
There was a period where one of my children was excessively frightened of spiders. Curdling screams would greet me if a spider was encountered. Getting into our car became an issue when a spider chose to make its home in the car’s side mirror. A tell-tale cobweb appeared on the car side mirror each morning while the spider remained hidden behind, making removal impossible.
In psychology, my area of practice, the debate between whether phobias are inborn, learned or a bit of both has been long debated. No adults in our family fear spiders so I wondered why my child’s fear was excessive. Any spiders in our home are either removed with a no-fuss approach or ignored if they posed no harm.
New research shows that we are born with the knowledge of the threat of some things. In the study by the Max Planck Institute, babies’ pupils were found to dilate in response to images of snakes and spiders. The research was important because babies are immobile at this age and have had little opportunity to learn that snakes and spiders are potentially dangerous. This suggests that some fears are innate and occur prior to learning about danger. It certainly explains the situation in my own home.
What does this mean for parents of children with fears?
While the study findings suggests that children have an inborn stress reaction to some things, not all children have over the top fear reactions to snakes and spiders. It seems some children are able to mediate the fear with self-reassurance or facts about the potential danger. Whether the fear is inborn or learned it is important to help your child reduce the fear to prevent developing a phobia. If already a phobia, these tips help to reduce the fear and limit the impact on their day-to-day life.
If you have a child that is very scared of something this is how you can help:
• Avoid removing all contact with the feared species or object. In my role as a clinical psychologist, I have met parents who take part in time-consuming searches for spiders in bedrooms and toilets for example to reassure their child. It is tempting to do this because it is hard to see your child upset. Although temporarily relieving, not having any contact with the feared object makes things worse because the child does not receive any realistic information from their experience about the dangers. I recommend the following instead.
• Use gentle and graded exposure to the feared object. Begin by encouraging your child to look at pictures of the feared object and to learn a lot about them as if they were a scientist or researcher. Buy plastic toys that you play together with. If it is an animal, go to a zoo and look at the animal behind glass or if domestic creatures like a dog set up regular meetings of increasing time and interaction with a gentle dog. If necessary, engage a psychologist to help you with this. We are experts in designing and supporting graded exposure treatment plans for phobias.
• If you share the same fear as your child, make sure you respond without anxiety when you come into contact with the feared object. Stay calm and explain the risk, if any, and what you are going to do in response to that. You don’t have to like or want to be near that feared object, but if you run screaming from a room or are visibly scared this will only reinforce your child’s belief they are in imminent and life-threatening danger. If you are unable to do this, consider getting treatment for your fear.
Although some fears are normal and may be inborn, others can make life very difficult for your child especially if they develop a phobia. In time using these steps, you will likely see an improvement.
A lot is possible with graded exposure. I’ve seen children who were terrified of dogs at the beginning of treatment become quite fond of the furry beasts and also people who were terrified of storms or insects develop a curiosity for them. My child has not come to love spiders as a result of gentle exposure, but her fear has reduced so much that it no longer causes her anxiety or problems with daily life.
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