Most of us can think about certain things that make us anxious. Many of these are understandable. Most of us can also think of one less rational thing that makes us anxious.
Phobias are similar to these irrational fears we all possess, the difference being that a phobia makes the sufferer feel extreme anxiety, even terror, at the thought of coming in contact with their feared thing or situation. The stronger the feeling of anxiety, the more likely we are to avoid the thing or situation.
Young children tend to learn to feel anxious from parents or significant others. Adolescents can develop fears and anxieties from their own thinking. One of the most common is social anxiety/phobia. When these fears and anxieties get out of control and the child/adolescent’s avoidance behaviours start to seriously interrupt their enjoyment of life, or their normal activities, this can be termed 'phobia' and usually requires some intervention.
THINGS TO THINK ABOUT
Has the phobia been learned or picked up from another person? It is important to consider whether a family member is helping maintain a phobia by their own fear, or by their fear of the child's anxiety or discomfort.
Has the child/adolescent had a direct experience that has scared them? This type of phobia can also develop because they have witnessed or heard something.
Is the child/adolescent stressed and experiencing anxiety symptoms? (e.g. from exams, parental separation). They may incorrectly connect feelings of anxiety with an object or situation that they are in.
Is embarrassment or fear of getting into a panic increasing their avoidance behaviour?
How much is the fear interfering with their normal daily life?
THINK ABOUT YOURSELF
Remember that a phobia is an irrational fear and is very personal to the sufferer. Try and avoid your own personal experience of fear influencing how you react to the child/adolescent.
If you have experienced a phobia yourself, this can be useful in helping them, however, your own embarrassment or frustration with yourself about your fears can make you annoyed with their lack of courage, motivation or progress. A child/adolescent can pick up on your feelings which can get in the way of your interventions being helpful.
What can you do as a parent/carer?
- Reassure them that fears and phobias are common and can be managed or resolved.
- Be aware that although their fear may be irrational, the child/adolescent’s feelings of stress are real to them. They cannot easily relax or recognise that the thing or situation is not threatening.
- Challenge any irrational thoughts they might have, but don’t minimise the intensity of their feelings.
- Explain that you understand how anxious they are and that you want to try to help.
- Ask them about their fears. Get a better understanding of how common their fears are and how much the fears interfere with their lifestyle.
- Ask them about their anxiety symptoms. How severe and/or disabling are their physical and emotional symptoms?
- Explain that their symptoms are normal and are not life threatening.
- If they become distressed, distract them by talking about normal things.
- Find out what might be reinforcing their fears (e.g. family, or fear of being embarrassed in public).
- Find out how long they’ve been experiencing symptoms and whether there are any other obvious stressors.
- Find an age appropriate way to explain phobias, how they develop and that avoidance of a situation or thing will encourage the phobia to continue.
- If appropriate, set small achievable targets to help increase confidence.
- With the child/adolescent, help explain to important others (e.g. family, teachers).
- Give them age appropriate reading material to help them understand.
When to consider asking for more specialist help
CONSIDER SEEKING HELP:
If the phobia is causing extreme distress or is severely inhibiting their normal daily life, and if your intervention does not appear to be working.
If the phobia occurs in combination with other worrying behaviours or psychological problems (e.g. sleep disturbance, deterioration in school performance).
If the child/adolescent tells you that they have suffered trauma.
Further support, advice and self-help
Young Minds gives free, relevant, practical information about a range of mental health issues in children and young people. It has information about feelings and symptoms, conditions and looking after yourself. It also has some specific information about self-harm and what to do about self-harm.
Minded is a free educational resource on children and young people’s mental health for adults, but can also be really useful for teenagers. It covers lot of topics.
Relate gives specific advice for different types of worries and problems aimed at young people.