AboutKidsHealth provides advice on helping parents cope with their children’s phobias and strategies for curing them of needless anxiety.
As a child, John Greene looked forward to the day when the end-of-summer carnival rolled into his hometown. For months leading up to the highly anticipated event, he would set aside a portion of his total allowance – a mere 75 cents, he recalls – to spend on sticks of cotton candy, rigged games, and tickets to rides that would leave him wishing he refrained from eating so much of the spun sugar. Sure that every kid loves the carnival, he want to share his joy with Kayla, his seven year-old daughter.
“My wife and I thought it would be a good idea to take Kayla to her first carnival,” he says. “She was having a blast until she came face-to-face with a clown that happened to walk right by us. She stopped dead in her tracks, started to cry, and insisted on leaving.”
When a person experiences an intense and persistent fear, which happens to be cued by the presence of a specific object or situation, is a tell-tale sign of a phobia, says Dr. Neil Rector. “And what happens when a person is exposed to this object or situation, it invariably elicits a very heightened anxiety.”
As the Director of the Mood and Anxiety Treatment and Research Program at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, Dr. Rector has helped many people overcome depression, anxiety, and persistent phobias. But he is quick to point out that phobias are now the most common anxiety condition and one of the most common psychiatric conditions in general. In fact, anywhere from six to 23% of the population is living with a phobia, he says.
“Phobias typically begin in childhood,” says Dr. Katharina Manassis, “but the specific type of phobia varies with age (i.e. fear of the dark or fear of clowns are more common in younger children, while social phobia is more common in teens.”
A psychiatrist at The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids), Dr. Manassis reminds parents that the important thing is not the specific type of phobia, but how much the phobia interferes with day-to-day functioning and normal development. “A fear of roller-coasters,” she says, “may not be worth treating, as it’s not a daily event, but a fear of dogs that results in the child running into traffic at the site of a dog certainly is.”
In her book, ‘Keys to Parenting Your Anxious Child‘, Dr. Manassis refers to a treatment called systematic desensitization – a form of behavioural therapy that has been used for decades to cure anxiety in children and adults due to their phobias.
She also points out that children respond better to treatment when they have some say in the “steps” they practice, in addition to positive reinforcement from parents throughout the progression.
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