You can help your children to manage their fears and phobias
Remember that neighbourhood garbage truck when you were very young? In your juvenile mind’s eye it may well have been a giant monster – and a very large and noisy one at that. To your young imagination, those headlights morphed into a set of bulging eyes, while the chrome radiator grill became a shiny set of big, menacing teeth.
You felt a real sense of terror in the truck’s presence. While the monster wasn’t real, the fear you felt was quite genuine – and normal, depending on your age.
It’s all biologically hardwired in us as part of our fight-or-flight response. When you think about it, we’re all here today thanks to our ancient ancestors’ fears – they knew when to hold, and when to fold, as the saying goes. But enough about the Stone Age for now. Let’s fast-forward to the preschool age.
The typical two- to six-year-old will be afraid of, among other things, animals and loud noises, monsters and ghosts. Beyond these early years, new, more reality-based fears start to develop. For example, perhaps you might even remember your own feelings of dread about going to elementary school or high school?
According to the experts, once these fears start to disrupt day-to-day normal life, they are known as phobias.
Does your four-year-old ever run away in terror from a really friendly dog or other perceived threat? That could well be a phobic reaction. So, what to do as a caring parent? As with so many aspects of life, moderation seems to be the best approach. On the one hand, you don’t want to shelter your child from every dog or give him too much sympathy – that might just feed the phobia. And on the other hand, you’re not going to put your child in a closed room with a dog. Some professionals would use what’s known as a desensitization approach – a gradual reintroduction to the fear stimulus, while ensuring that the child maintains his sense of control over the situation. This could involve anything from viewing old Lassie reruns together to a trip to an animal shelter to look at puppies.
Once kids reach school age, there’s a growing consciousness about keeping up appearances with their friends. As such, phobias can carry a double-whammy which can compound the problem. Don’t fixate on fears with your child. Instead, seek to discuss these rationally. For instance, why is it that someone else’s negative opinion really seems to matter more than a real friend’s positive opinion?
As children approach the teenage years, they may communicate less with parents. That’s where parents’ powers of observation need to kick in even more. Is your son avoiding gym class? Find out why by encouraging open communication, while keeping in mind your teen’s need to demonstrate his independence.
Many parents will wonder when to engage professional help. As a starting point, the question to ask is: “Does the fear interfere with our normal everyday lives?” Your family physician or pediatrician can help you, and can also put you in touch with the appropriate mental-health professionals if necessary.
And by the way, getting back to that garbage truck of our childhood – it’s a great imaginary place for you and your kids to chuck those fears and phobias.