What NOT to do if your child has fears or phobias

Phobias occur when harmless things become real dangers in the mind. These things take on power they don’t deserve even in ways that don’t make sense, irrationally. When you have fears or phobias, that fear you feel is real and compelling for children, a fear that can be debilitating. The good news is that children’s phobias and fears are manageable and with good guidance and strategies, children can be empowered to overcome them.

Causes of fears and phobias

Sometimes when there are specific phobias or fears in children, there is usually a starting point where that fear began -although not always-. It could be something that happened to the person, a story they heard, a movie, or just when they saw the news.

With a phobia, being present for the other thing feared will cause a fight reaction or flight because the brain will firmly feel that it is a threat, which gives way to the other person acting automatically without giving the brain time to analyze the situation and come up with a different plan.

The avoidance that comes with phobias is not so much about avoiding the feared thing, but about avoiding the intense feelings that come with it. These feelings are connected to the fight or flight reaction, a physiological response that involves the release of neurotransmitters to fight for life itself -although there is no danger of life or death-. When neurochemicals build up, you have intense physical emotion and sensation that make people feel bad. When you avoid the scary cause, it’s not the solution because you’re not addressing the problem.

Causes fears and phobias

What NOT to do: The avoidance problem

In addition to respecting the fears and emotions of children when they feel fear or phobias, it is necessary to take another aspect into account. When children show fear or great anxiety, it is completely understandable that parents want to protect them from these feelings and prevent them from having to go through this suffering. Sometimes, whether from exhaustion or a lack of options, it can feel like the only way to soothe your children’s distress is to support avoidance. This can lead to short-term relief but can turn into a bigger problem in the long run. Avoidance has a sneaky way of fueling anxiety and stress in these situations.

Avoidance takes away the opportunity for children to learn that anything they worry about will most likely never happen and that if it does, they are resilient people who they may have sufficient resources to deal with them. There is no opportunity to learn that fear is a warning but not a prediction.

What children learn from avoidance is that it is the best way to deal with an unusual situation and that confrontation is avoidance. The more something is avoided, they think it’s the only way to stay safe, something that will make it a reasonable option and prevent them from being able to overcome their fear and feel completely sure of themselves.

People’s brains always change for the better for us and are always learning. We learn through experience. When an experience is repeated, the brain reinforces the corresponding connections. It will change according to what is thought to be needed, it will be based on the behaviors that are repeated. If avoidance is a repeated response, the brain trains itself to support that. But thanks to neuroplasticity we can change that, change experiences to change ourselves. Children can also get it by looking for the necessary strategies to face fear or phobias.