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What to do when your child’s fear becomes debilitating

Jen Klein is a New England-based technical writer and mother of three. When she isn't asking her kids to stop bickering, "caramelizing" the dinner or actively ignoring the dust bunnies under the couch, she enjoys knitting, gardening, pho...

Addressing phobias

Your child is afraid of something. Big or little, every time your child encounters, or even might encounter this thing, there’s a scene. A big, attention attracting, emotionally exhausting scene. You thought she would outgrow it -- but, nope, it’s getting worse. You’ve tried logic -- but your son manages to twist it to justify his fear. It’s getting to the point you are as afraid of your child’s fear as your child is afraid of whatever -- spiders, birds, lima beans. You’ve got to do something before the whole family’s emotional health is damaged.

scared little girl

If this describes your child -- fear of something so overwhelming that it has impacted the family dynamic -- you are not alone. But you need to recognize when you are dealing with and adjust your plans and expectations accordingly, and you losing your patience and freaking out isn't going to help things. Your child has moved beyond fear and possibly into a full-fledged, diagnosable phobia. Take a deep breath.

What is a phobia?

A phobia is fear that is unreasonable in scope and can cause a feeling of panic and/or result in extreme measures to avoid that which one fears. It is a type of anxiety disorder -- and a relatively common one at that.

For example, say your son or daughter is afraid of turkeys and there are flocks of wild turkeys in your neighborhood. A simple fear of turkeys may manifest itself in your daughter wanting you to pick her up, or making some noise. A phobia level fear of turkeys might result in a full-fledged panic attack at the sight of one of these wild birds and may require you and your family to take extreme measures to avoid the turkeys.

Why is your child afraid of turkeys of all things, you may be asking? Well, why not turkeys? Why spiders? There are as many reasons fears develop as fears. It can be a slowly developed fear, or the result of a traumatic incident. No matter what the reason, however, you need help dealing with it.

Professional help needed

When a fear gets to this level, you and your family need some help with dealing with it. Logic isn't working, and the interference with your family life is taking its toll. You need to get to the root of why the phobia developed in the first place, and then develop some coping mechanisms and a treatment strategy.

Your child's pediatrician should be your first call and if the phobia is an uncommon one, don't let him or her dismiss it. If it's disrupting everyone's life, it needs to be dealt with! Your child's pediatrician should be able to refer you to a local, well-regarded licensed therapist that can help you and your child figure out this very upsetting fear.

Be patient

Along the way of recognizing and treating your child's phobia, you may need to adjust your expectations -- and up the patience. Whether or not this phobia seems to have come on suddenly or developed over time, it's going to take more time to sort it out -- time to sort out the root of the phobia, time to develop coping strategies and time to feel any comfort and confidence with progress when it's made.

Most of us fear something or another and some of us will develop phobias. When it's your child, it can be particularly hard to watch and deal with it. But deal with it you must. Don't dismiss your child's fear. Instead, get the help your child and your whole family needs to live life with less fear.

More on helping kids with fear

When your child is scared of animals
Books that help kids overcome fears
Children's nightmares are scary to both kids and parents


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