Specific Fears and Phobias

  • While fears and phobias can begin at any age and continue into adulthood, I’ve found it interesting to observe with my children that the range of fears increases with language development. From an ACT perspective, the reason we as humans suffer from fear originates with our capacity for language. With language, we can make associations from one object or situation to a feeling, even when there might not be an objective relationship between them. We can then generalise that association to other situations. For example, a child who is once bitten by a midgie (common where I live in Scotland) might learn to feel wary and fearful of midgies – and they might generalise that fear to all other insects too. They might then react by screaming, getting upset and running away when any insect comes near. For a fuller explanation of relational frame theory and the relationship to anxiety including child examples, see – https://positivepsychology.com/relational-frame-theory/
  • Babies experience stranger anxiety, clinging to parents when confronted by people they don’t recognize. During the current period of isolation at home due to covid-19, this is likely to be more marked.
  • Toddlers around 10 to 18 months old experience separation anxiety, becoming emotionally distressed when one or both parents leave. Most parents who have gone back to work after maternity leave and had the experience of dropping their child off at nursery or with a childminder are likely to have observed this for themselves, often with upsetting frequency.
  • It’s not unusual for young children in the pre-school years to develop fears of specific animals, such as dogs. My daughter has had a – thankfully for her brief – experience of dog phobia which we have been able to resolve using strategies from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, so I thought it might be helpful to share what worked well for us.
  • Building more positive associations with dogs – It can be tempting to challenge negative associations children have with dogs, however from an ACT and RFT perspective the disadvantage of this is it keeps the child in contact with their negative thoughts about dogs for longer, with the risk of increasing their struggle with them. The other aspect, which from my experience of working with Therapet volunteers as co-therapists they always point out, is that sometimes children’s negative thoughts about dogs are realistic and adaptive. For example, a dog you don’t know might bite you, and it’s not helpful to either dogs or children to encourage children to assume all dogs are harmless and friendly. Also, for a child who has had a negative experience with an animal they will know it did happen and will find it more helpful to acknowledge that some anxiety about it happening again could be valid, and find ways to reduce risk rather than ignore that. So with my daughter, we looked our for opportunities to build positive doggy associations instead. She bonded with some doggy cuddly toys first, and enjoyed watching “Hey Duggee”. Once we’d used acceptance, willingness, values and defusion as well (see below) we then moved on to watching out for opportunities to experience dogs as fun and entertaining, such as a dog running for a stick, and then a dog swimming in a stream chasing a stick. We then took some opportunities to pat friendly dogs of people we knew who offered, where we were convinced it was low risk.
  • Acceptance – I took the approach with her of accepting that yes, there may be dogs at the playpark or out for a walk (she values climbing and running) , but would she (be willing) like to go anyway, even if there might be a dog? Yes she would.
  • Defusion – once we sooner or later saw a dog, when she expressed anxiety I acknowledged her feelings then asked her questions such as “Is it big or small?” “What colour is it?” “What kind of fur does it have?” “How many dogs can you see?” and found this worked really well for her – her mind got busy noticing other features of the dog other than “scary”, which reduced how convinced she was that they were scary. Interestingly, she now automatically describes dogs in the park for me without being prompted and without expressing any fear.
  • Children aged 4 to 6 often experience fears not grounded in reality. My daughter also had a brief experience of fear of the gruffalo suddenly appearing in a wood. Coming back again to the power of associations, my husband took the tack of asking her is she thought Highland Cows (common where we live), looked like the gruffalo – she did. Because her associations of Highland Cow are positive, this had the effect of again defusing her fear of gruffalos, and she is once again very happy to run around in our local woods, even when it gets a bit dark.

Relevant Reading:

Parenting your anxious child with mindfulness and acceptance: a powerful new approach to overcoming fear, panic and worry using acceptance and commitment therapy by Christopher McCurry

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