WHAT IS A SPECIFIC PHOBIA?
All children suffer from fears at one time or another, this is normal. But when a fear creates feelings of overwhelming danger that are disproportionate to the actual situation, the child is most likely suffering from an anxiety disorder.
A specific phobia focuses around one particular object, activity, animal, insect, or situation (triggers) and causes the child to avoid the trigger at all costs. If the situation can’t be avoided, the child becomes distressed. This in turn evolves into avoidance.
Some common specific phobias include:
· fear of water (aquaphobia)
· fear of the dark (nyctophobia)
· fear of thunder and lightning (astraphobia)
· fear of insects (entomophobia)
· fear of dogs (cynophobia)
· fear of places or situations that might cause panic (agoraphobia)
· fear of social situations (social phobia)
Emotional symptoms of a child with a specific phobia may include:
· an intense unrealistic fear that something terrible will happen if he encounters the feared situation or thing
· a need to avoid the object that causes anxiety
· a sense of panic
Physiological symptoms may include:
· a racing heart
· difficulty breathing
· feeling weak
When the specific phobia interferes with the child’s sleep, concentration, ability to have fun, or function normally, intervention from a mental health professional is needed.
Predisposition - Some children are prone to being more anxious than others and are less capable of handling stress.
Genes - If the child comes from a long line of anxious people, chances are that the child will develop an anxiety disorder.
Environment - Situations that may be a factor in developing a specific phobic child include:
· living with an anxious parent
· living in a volatile home
· having a stressful school environment
· parents going through a divorce
· losing a family member or friend
· living with a disabled or seriously ill family member
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)
CBT helps children recognise their thought patterns and identify where and when those patterns help and where they hurt. In other words, how we think and act affects how we feel. By incorporating Graded Exposure into CBT, the child slowly and systematically faces his fears and learns to better manage the symptoms of his anxiety. With practice the child gains mastery over fear and experiences reduced symptoms.
Dr. Madeleine Vieira's Anxiety Disorder Series, I'M AFRAID, introduces CBT techniques to help children overcome their anxiety disorders.
Sophia Swan Is Afraid of Water! focuses on Specific Phobias. In this book, Sophia wants to swim in the lake like the other swans, but she’s afraid of water. To overcome her fear, she uses a stepladder process (i.e., Graded Exposure) to gradually expose herself to water. She starts with small steps and gradually builds up to more fearful situations.
In treatment, mental health professionals help children to control their phobias and uncomfortable feelings using specific techniques such as:
· Understanding that the imagined outcome associated with the ‘specific phobia’ isn’t realistic.
· Using self-talk to ‘fight’ the fear. The child might tell himself what he thinks will happen won’t actually happen.
· Using relaxation techniques. The child is taught to use controlled breathing exercises to help lessen anxious feelings.
· Using role-playing techniques, such as practicing worst-case outcomes. The mental health professional will help the child realise that the outcomes are not possible or highly unlikely.
· Teaching the child he can manage his uncomfortable feelings successfully without avoidance. This takes time, repetition, and practice!
When a child’s phobia doesn’t fully respond to CBT, anti-anxiety medication prescribed by a child & adolescent psychiatrist may be beneficial.