Have you ever wondered where we get our phobias from? If you were mauled by a giant poodle as a child I can understand your fear of dogs; but where do kids with phobias get them from?
Yesterday at breakfast, my six year old daughter, Elsie, was sniffling with yet another cold she’s brought back from school. I decided to have a chat about hygiene and check that she was washing her hands at least when she uses the bathroom and has lunch.
“Oh I don’t go to the bathroom at school. It’s too scary so I hold on until I get back.” She said.
We leave for school at 7.15am and get back at 3.30pm… That’s a serious hold. I ask more about this fear of the bathroom and it turns out sometime back in October the fire alarm went off mid-pee. It gave her such a shock she’s been unable to enter the bathroom since. She was even quite upset that the alarm had gone off just as she sat down so she “didn’t even get anything out.” We had a little pep talk and she promised me she was going to use the bathroom the following school day. The trouble is, knowing my daughter, she will go first thing so that she can say she’s done it, while knowing the alarm is unlikely to go off as everyone is bumbling in from the car park. She’s a sneaky little thing.
Unlike Elsie, I am a fairly fearless person… here’s me age 18 jumping out of a plane at 15,000ft…
As a kid I was into horse riding, rock climbing and roller-coasters. I am still yet to find a roller-coaster that makes me want to walk the other way. I just love them, the bigger the better. Elsie was carried kicking and screaming out of the Minions ride at Universal Studios because she didn’t like the look of the ‘scary’ entrance and got fixated on it.
So why does my daughter have a fantastic fear of everything? Is it from her father? Is it something I’ve done or not done? I question this all the time – multiple time a day in fact, because that’s how many times I’m dealing with a total FREAK OUT. Yesterday again, on the way to ballet, I’m driving along a fairly main road when my eardrums nearly explode from the screech coming the back row of the minivan.
“Aaghhhebarhaaaaeeeegglllle…” She screams.
“What is it?” I say in mild panic. Has she lost a limb? Gone blind? Just discovered Donald Trump is President?
“Spiiiideeerrrr…” She wails.
I continue to drive until I can pull over, by which point her twin brothers are also screaming because when she crys, they cry. That’s a lot of crying. She leaps to the front of the wagon in tears and I climb past her to assess the scale of the beast. A little black spider scurried across the window, soon to be squashed by a Mom finger and a Walmart receipt… sorry buddy, your time is up.
You would think that was the end of it, but we had floods of tears all the way to ballet, wailing about how she can feel it crawling all over her and how she’s going to have nightmares tonight. It was beyond being a little jumpy, she is genuinely one of those kids with phobias.
I tried to talk her down, but she was so focused on the spider I couldn’t divert too much or I wouldn’t have been able to keep her attention. So I asked her what three things in the world she was most scared of.
“Being alone in the dark.”
Why do kids have phobias?
Elsie has many phobias and her chosen top three are some of the most commom. ‘Child Therapist’s List of Top Worries by Age’ includes fear of the dark, loud noises and bugs as classics for ages 5-7, so it seems Elsie is not alone. Even I remember being pretty terrified of Daddy-Long-Legs when I was her age. So why are we so scared of certain things as children?
‘Fears develop when a child is old enough to have an imagination, but is not yet old enough to distinguish fantasy from reality.’ says Dr. Sue Hubbard in the Chicago Tribune.
As we all know, toddlers and young children can have a very active imagination; and it seems their brains go up a gear when they are plunged into darkness. There are less distractions, leaving their minds to run wild, and then of course the monsters come out to play. This is why so many of our little ones suffer from a fear of the dark.
So if imagination is to blame for the fear of the dark, what about the fear of bugs. This is a tricky one to tackle and can often lead to the phobia continuing into adulthood. It seems as humans were are inherently uncomfortable around insects. In fact, In Chapman University’s 2016 Survey on American Fears, 25 percent of respondents said they were afraid of insects and/or spiders. I am the spider removal service in our house, but if one crawled up my leg I’ll jump as much as the next person. There are some theories behind why this phobia is so common:
- The fear is justified by some insects actually being harmful;
- Insects, unlike bears and lions, trigger a ‘rejection response’ (the need to instantly ‘get it away from me’). This response is linked to disgust which is a built-in mechanism, designed to keep us safe.
- Their physical form is unlike ours, ie they look weird (unlike most mammals).
- They are often found in ‘armies’, something we find inherently threatening.
So it seems there are slightly different reasons behind different fears and they may all need to a slightly different approach.
So, what can we do as parents for our kids with phobias?
- Discuss your child’s phobias with them – acknowledge it and help them see you take it seriously.
- Help your child draw pictures of their fears and ceremoniously throw them away;
- Teach your children positive self-talk e.g. “I’m not afraid of the dark.” “That spider is not going to hurt me.”
- Empower your child with tools and special powers e.g. an emergency flashlight nearby, ‘monster spray’ or a ‘lucky charm’ to keep them safe when they visit the dentist.
- Arm them with knowledge – help kids with phobias learn to identify which spiders are dangerous so they understand the others are not.
- Transform the negative into a positive – get them interested in what it is they are scared of e.g. get a book on snakes and find out some cool facts about them.
- Share you own fears with your child and how you deal with them.
- Exposure therapy… don’t force it, but try to encourage them to face their fears while in a safe environment.
Some phobias are easier to tackle that others. I’m not suggesting torturing your child by repeatedly exposing them to sudden loud noises. However, you can sit with your child in the dark for a while to show them it’s OK. You can give them something to say and focus on when they feel scared.
A success story:
When my daughter was 18months old a very large fighter plane flew overhead when we were on holiday in France. She was so traumatized by this experience that she would get upset every time we went outside. When we made her join us in the back yard at home, she would spend the entire time staring up at the sky, waiting for a plane to come. This went on for over a year, and when a small plane would go overhead, she would go into total melt down. It was a nightmare for all.
We tackled this fear by talking about how cool airplanes were, a lot. We gave her a Duplo airplane for Xmas, and I would encourage her to draw them when she was in an artsy mood. When we did go outside and a plane came overhead we would wave to it…
“Have a nice holiday!” we would say together while waving.
And slowly, it worked. To begin with it was more of a panicked broken record, “have a nice holiday…” said over and over again as quickly as she could until the plane passed. But it was definitely helping her get through it, and she learnt that the plane would pass and nothing bad would happen.
Kids with phobias: Last words of wisdom…
You are not alone. My kid has a fantastic fear of everything, from cutting fingernails and hand-stands, to owls. It is challenging and slightly traumatic for all of us on a daily basis. So if you’re a Mom of kids with phobias, try not to blame yourself, and take time to process the fact you may not to be riding roller-coasters together… ever. Sob.
In case you haven’t seen the movie, here’s the trailer. It’s fantastic!
I found these articles super interesting when researching kids with phobias:
- Insects are Scary Because the Brain Confuses Disgust with Fear.
- Fear of the Dark is a Normal Part of Development.