David Coleman: My 7-year-old granddaughter has an extreme fear of dogs
Advice from the parenting expert and clinical psychologist on how to help a child overcome a fear of dogs and on whether or not a couple should have a second child as they feel their son is missing out by being an only child.
Q. I have a beautiful granddaughter aged seven, very outgoing, bubbly and well into all sporty activities. Over the last six months or so she has developed a great fear of dogs - all dogs, big and small, friendly and otherwise. The fear is huge. A small pup wandered into the back garden recently and my granddaughter was there on her own and got such a fright, she wet herself. If a dog is coming towards us on a leash, my granddaughter tries to hide behind me. I think she has got a fright from a local dog, but how do I help her?
David replies: You may not be able to help her, or at least not directly. I think your first step should be to bring her to a psychologist who specialises in working with children to try to get a measure of the extent and nature of her fear.
Even if she doesn't have a full-blown phobia, it sounds like her anxiety is extreme enough to warrant some professional intervention.
Phobias are best treated with a cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) approach of graded exposure.
Essentially, this approach first teaches your granddaughter about anxiety, what it is and how it affects her, both physiologically and psychologically. Once she has an understanding of anxiety, she can then learn some relaxation techniques.
Most likely these will be some variation on a breathing technique or perhaps a progressive muscular relaxation technique, or a guided visualisation/meditation. The aim of all of these techniques is to lower the levels of adrenalin (the hormonal response to danger) that will be circulating in her body when she sees or hears dogs.
Alongside teaching your granddaughter to regulate her anxiety, the psychologist will explore the exact circumstances of when she first became afraid of dogs.
The purpose of this is to identify anything significant that was happening for her, before the first scare, then to identify exactly what happened that scared her, and then what happened after that initial fright.
Knowing the before, during and after experience will allow the psychologist to work out the best form of graded exposure. It might also help to identify anything that exacerbated her fear, or anything that has helped her fear.
For example, one of the things that may have made it worse was an experience of helplessness just before or during the fright. On that day, or subsequently, she has probably also worked out for herself that avoiding dogs has made the anxiety go away.
What your granddaughter then needs to learn is that she can use the relaxation techniques to also make the anxiety go away, even when she is faced with the presence of a dog. She also needs to remind herself that she can cope with dogs, that dogs can be friendly, and so on. This is considered positive self-talk.
Naturally, having a dog up close, right at the start would probably be too frightening and would overwhelm her ability to regulate her fear and anxiety with breathing or meditation. So, she needs to have her anxiety raised a little bit, such that she can successfully then reduce it.
Graded exposure then is the process of slowly and gradually and increasing the proximity to dogs that your granddaughter can bear, while still being able to regulate her anxiety using the relaxation techniques.
So, it might start with your granddaughter simply imagining a dog, then calming herself down.
The next step might be hearing a recording of a dog bark. Then the psychologist will increase her exposure, perhaps getting her to look at pictures of dogs, all the while using the relaxation techniques and positive self-talk to keep her anxiety down.
Once she has mastered each level of exposure, keeping herself calm, she moves to the next level. In due course she will get to the point of seeing real dogs in the distance, dogs closer to her, dogs on a leash close by, perhaps eventually getting to the stage of petting a dog.
This process can take some time and lots of effort. Given her age, it is probably best done by an experienced professional.
Should I have a second child so that my son won't be negatively impacted by being an only child?
Q. We had our 16-month-old son when I was 40 and my boyfriend 47. We decided not to have a second baby as the risks seemed so much greater because of my age. We are thrilled with our little boy and he is very content and happy. But, recently, I am plagued with guilt at not having a second child, because our boy will grow up an only child. I would only consider a second so that he has a sibling, and yet that doesn't seem to be a strong enough reason to have another baby. Do you think not having brothers or sisters will impact our son negatively?
David replies: It is impossible to tell how being an only child or being an older sibling will affect your son. While there has been research on the impact of having siblings, and the impact of being an only child, the findings are inconclusive.
Some research shows that it is good to be an only child because the child can get more parental attention and potentially greater access to money-based extra-curricular or educational opportunities, leading to greater achievement in later life.
Other research shows that only children may struggle with some aspects of peer relationships, being more comfortable with adults. Only children may also grow up with a greater sense of grandiosity or entitlement as they have had less need to share or potentially delay their gratification.
Other studies looking at siblings suggest that sibling rivalry, or more serious sibling bullying, can negatively affect some children. Sharing family resources and parental attention can also reduce happiness and satisfaction for some children.
This too is balanced by findings that sibling support and the potential emotional bond between siblings is a real benefit later in life. Growing up with siblings also allows children to negotiate the skills of sharing, turn-taking and so on, which are important life-lessons.
So, there is nothing that can conclusively or definitively help you to make up your mind about whether to have more children, based on the potential impact on your son.
So, rather than considering his needs, with regard to siblings or not, focus on your own desire to have more children or not.
There is always a danger, in our parenting choices, that we only focus on the needs of our child(ren), without according our own needs, or the needs of our wider family the same level of importance.
How anxious or distressed might you be during a second pregnancy, when you are aware of the higher risks of birth or developmental complications due to your age? How will that affect your relationship with your son?
How will you feel, after the birth, if the experience of having two children is stressful, tiring or overwhelming? How might those feelings be directed towards your son if you "blame" him or are resentful towards him because you feel you became pregnant just to facilitate him?
If you and your partner want a bigger family, then go ahead and get pregnant. If you feel that having more children is something that will enhance your life and the life of your family, then go ahead and get pregnant.
But, if you are only getting pregnant because you think it might be good for your son, I would advise you to think long and hard about it.
In truth, whatever way your family develops (as a single child or multiple child family), it will be your parenting style, and your investment in your family, that will probably have the biggest impact on the development of your child or children.
Even if your son remains an only-child, being a firm and kind parent will help him to grow and develop into a good adult. Setting clear limits, having expectations of him, but moderating that firmness with warmth and understanding is what will give your son the best environment within which to grow.
Being an only child is neither especially good, nor bad. So expand your family if it is what you and your partner want, but not because you feel it is something your son needs.
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