Friday 21 October 2016

Coping with phobias: How I coped with my little boy's phobia of bananas

When Kate Gunn's young son suddenly started to run out of the room whenever a banana was in sight, she realised he had developed a serious phobia of fruit. But it's a very common problem, as she was to find out

Published 27/04/2016 | 02:30

Tears for fears: Naomi and Diarmuid Lavelle with daughter Caer - who overcame her fear of mannequins through CBT with the help of her therapist dad - and sons Culann and Rohan. Photo: Andrew Downes
Tears for fears: Naomi and Diarmuid Lavelle with daughter Caer - who overcame her fear of mannequins through CBT with the help of her therapist dad - and sons Culann and Rohan. Photo: Andrew Downes

For years I didn't believe him. He was acting up, just trying to avoid it, being difficult.

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I mean, who on earth is actually afraid of fruit? As a baby he would eat the pureed mush that they all do - bananas and berries, or carrot and mango - but gradually things changed.

There wasn't one defining moment or traumatic experience that I could put it down to - but somewhere along the line my son Baxter, now seven, developed a fear of fruit that was as real as any adult's fear of heights or spiders.

Just because I hadn't heard of it before didn't mean it wasn't real. And he wasn't the only one suffering from it either - oh no, there's even an actual term for it: carpophobia. Who knew?

In the early years, before taking it seriously, I got frustrated. It was just an apple, a nice crisp apple, couldn't he just try a bite for goodness sake? Then I got crafty. So you don't like apples, son? Well then you wouldn't be interested in this freshly-baked apple pie and ice cream then, would you? He wasn't.

Then the party invites started to come in and he begged me not to make him go. I couldn't understand it. There was seemingly no rhyme nor reason to the parties he was avoiding - even some of his best friends got rejected.

And then I realised it was the place, not the person in question. One particular local venue serves platters of fruit before the kids had their burgers and chips, so for him, it was a no-go area.

Naturally enough, as all good siblings do, his brother and sister picked up on it and began taunting him. If he started to annoy one of them, they would walk in brandishing a banana and he would literally run screaming from the room.

He won't sit at the same table as us if we are drinking orange juice and even more distressing is the fact that he won't allow me to hug or kiss him if I have eaten a piece of fruit or had a morning smoothie. Many's the day I've waved him off from the school gates after pleading unsuccessfully to let me kiss him goodbye - not a good look, I can assure you.

Almost stranger than the actual phobia itself is the levels of fear it entails. He tells me that the worst offenders are oranges and bananas, while apples are on the other end of the scale.

So where did this fear come from? David Carey, child pyschologist, explains: "Phobias can arise from a real-life event that is sudden and frightening such as seeing a mouse or a spider and feeling threatened.

"Some phobias aren't so easy to explain, such as fear of outdoor places or fear of ducks. Yes, there is a duck phobia. These often arise out of early childhood traumas and aren't so easy to discover as causal factors."

But is there a difference between a normal childhood fear of something and an actual phobia?

"A phobia is an extreme and intense reaction, accompanied by the fight or flee response and usually experienced as a terror," adds Dr Carey.

So not really a laughing matter. Other parents I spoke to have had similar experiences with different objects - balloons, feathers and even Christmas trees were mentioned.

Wexford mother Nicola Naessons has struggled to understand her 11-year-old daughter Caoimhe's deep-rooted phobia - a fear of clowns and other characters who are 'dressed up' - and where it came from.

"We are pretty certain it was triggered, or we definitely noticed, when she was only a toddler," says Nicola. "We were attending a family event in Wexford at Halloween, a parade and fireworks. As we were making our way along the street a very, very tall witch leaned over us and roared.

"The poor little thing was petrified, I was so annoyed, it was a really silly thing to do to a toddler in the first place.

"From that point on her fear has been very apparent."

Over the years things have improved somewhat, says Nicola. "The dance school she attends take part in the St Patrick's Day parade every year and the first year she was in the school, we had to bring her home again as there were too many dressed-up characters, but in the last couple of years, with the help of her friends, she has taken part and enjoyed it."

But the main fear - fear of clowns - persists. "She would never entertain the idea of going to the circus," says Nicola. "We were at a family wedding last year and a clown appeared to entertain the children. Poor Caoimhe went white as a sheet and we had to take her out of the room. She was petrified." "We just avoid putting her into situations where she might get a fright, while that may not be the best way of managing it, it certainly makes her feel better as she trusts we'd never knowingly put her in an uneasy situation."

Other odd phobias that people have are xanthophobia, fear of the colour yellow; turophobia, fear of cheese, and ombrophobia, fear of rain (not great when you live in Ireland).

So what can parents do if they notice their child has developed a phobia? Dr Carey says there are a couple of different methods that can be followed up by an expert.

"The most common treatments for phobia are two: one is behaviour, and uses what is called systematic desensitisation, a gradual exposer to the phobic object. The other is a combination of relaxation, meditation and cognitive behaviour therapy."

News from the US last month showed a more drastic breakthrough in combating the problem.

Researchers at Menzies Health Institute Queensland at Griffith University's Gold Coast are tackling children's crippling phobias by exposing them to the very things they fear the most. It is called intense exposure therapy and it is curing childhood anxiety disorders in less than a day. It uses a twin-pronged approach - play therapy, plus controversially, the use of a drug called D-Cycloserine, once used to fight tuberculosis.

However, GP Dr Ciara Kelly says that if you are looking for such treatment in Ireland you would have to wait, and that currently as it stands she certainly wouldn't recommend it.

"It's at trial stage so no one could recommend it's use until the results of that are assessed. That's not to say it may not work, it just means until the evidence is there we wouldn't take a position in it."

Although personally I would rather my child not eat fruit than take unnecessary medication, the exposure to the phobia does make sense.

Like many schools in Ireland, Baxter's school took part recently in the Food Dudes initiative. The aim is of course to encourage kids to try a variety of different fruits and vegetables over a two-week period.

Since Baxter couldn't leave school for two weeks, he was exposed to fruits every day. He began the first day close to tears, but progressed to touching and then, to everyone's surprise, actually tasting a Granny Smith.

And yes, he may have acted like Snow White choking on her poisoned apple as he did it - but he knows now that he lived to tell the tale.

Surely that apple pie isn't far away.

'Logic does not work with  phobia, let the child take  control of the challenge'

Naomi and Diarmuid Lavelle from Galway have seen at first-hand how upsetting having a child with a phobia can be. Their daughter Caer's problem began when she was about two, but was successfully treated by Diarmuid, who is a therapist. Caer is now 12 , and has overcome her fear.

Diarmuid says : "Caer had a fear of mannequins, in particular ones that moved, such as Halloween characters and Santa Clauses.

"It began from a young age, probably about two years old. We first noticed it at Halloween, when our local supermarket had a life-sized, dancing Frankenstein."

Then it began causing problems in their day-to-day life.

"It was impossible to get Caer into any shops that contained these types of figures, especially at Halloween. I can't say I blame her - it was a genuine fear. One day I had to return home without making it into the shops, we literally had no milk or bread. We had to wait until one of us was able to go to the shop alone.

"When Caer was older, we took a family trip to Disneyland Paris. We didn't factor in this fear. I remember one particular ride where you had to walk by a very large Buzz Lightyear while queuing, he moved as you got closer. Poor Caer was absolutely terrified and we had to abandon that ride and carry her out. After that we co-ordinated all rides so that she was not exposed to anything like that."

Diarmuid decided he needed to tackle the problem directly.

He says: "As a father, I didn't want to see my daughter stressed like that so we tended to step back from the object, get down on her level and talk to her to reassure her. When we felt it was necessary we walked away with her.

"As a therapist I have dealt with fears and phobias a lot, more so with adults, but I applied a few simple steps that I would typically recommend to clients, such as normalising the fear.

"Using a fear scale we visualised different situations and outcomes, a technique known as graded exposure from cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

"After we had assessed the fear using our imagination, we then gradually began to approach real-life situations, while constantly keeping an eye on fear levels and not allowing the fear to escalate beyond an uncomfortable level (that is very important)."

"Caer is now confident around mannequins and often points them out and comments 'remember when I used to be scared of those'. The reply often being 'yes, you probably would have grown out of the fear soon enough all by yourself' to give her a sense of her own autonomy."

Diarmuid's expert advice to other parents in the same situations is this: "Don't make the fear bad or wrong. Fear is a protective mechanism and is usually unconscious.

"Comment on all the other things your child is not afraid of and normalise his/her fear as being healthy and normal.

"Logic does not work with phobias, fear is all about feeling and phobias are part of a perfectly normal brain.

"In reality, use graded exposure while the child is relaxed and feeling good and never allow too much discomfort, let the child decide and let them take control of the challenge. The change is more powerful this way, and gives more autonomy to them, a nice positive affirmation to move on with in life."

Irish Independent

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