Fear factor: Dealing with childhood phobias
While a mild phobia in a child will cause minimal distress, more severe cases can seriously diminish their quality of life. There are professionals who can help.
JULIE* is six years old. Like others of her age, she has never liked being alone in the dark.
But unlike most young children, Julie can’t be soothed with a night light or an open door – and the older she gets, the more her bedtime routine sparks anxiety and illogical fear.
Her mother, Anne, has tried everything she could think of to rid her daughter of her darkness phobia but nothing seems be working. Every night she lies next to Julie until the little girl falls asleep, and throughout the night she makes trips to her bedroom to soothe her when she wakes.
“I am totally exhausted with it all,” admits Anne. “Julie has never liked the dark. When she was a baby we had a little nightlight in her room and always left the door open, but as she gets older she seems to be getting worse rather than better.
“I have a feeling that we may have somehow allowed this phobia to develop because when she was young, I would regularly stay with her until she fell asleep. I think she has got into the habit of me being there and now can’t fall asleep unless I am lying next to her.
“She also wakes up a lot in the night and panics when she realises she is alone in the bed. We have two other children who are younger than Julie and sometimes her screaming wakes them up so the whole house is in chaos – it’s really draining on every level.”
The 42 year old says she and her husband Paul have decided to take their eldest child for counselling as they believe her stubborn nature is what is causing her to ‘hang on to’ the phobia for as long as possible as a means of getting attention.
“Paul and I have tried everything we can think of with Julie and have come to the conclusion that subconsciously she felt a bit left out when her sister and brother were born so became more and more ‘scared’ of the dark as a sure way to get our attention,” she says. “I have no doubt that she was genuinely frightened in the beginning but I believe there is something of a habit involved now and we need to do something to break it.
“We are going to take her to see someone as we both believe she needs to get over it now or it will affect her in the future. We are open to trying everything, so fingers crossed that we will have success.”
Child psychologist David Carey says that being afraid of the dark is one of the most common phobias to affect small children, and that while most of the time the child can be placated, if the case is severe enough, it can cause problems in later life.
“The main phobias I see in children are of darkness, insects, dogs and spiders,” he says. “At the mild end of the spectrum, the fears of the child can be soothed by their parents or carers. But at the extreme end, the phobia can take over their life and interfere with all sorts of things including concentration and school attendance.”
The Dublin-based psychologist says phobias can start suddenly but need to be handled with care and patience.
“Phobias typically begin when the child is suddenly and abruptly presented with the object they become phobic of and get startled,” he explains. “When the brain is taken by surprise by something that is a bit strange or seems threatening it goes into stress mode: flight, flee or freeze. It is this stress response that is the origin of the phobia.
“As it develops, children with phobias become extremely upset when the phobic object is near and they may panic, cry, scream, run away or, in the case of young children, wet themselves.”
So how can these phobias be cured?
“Most phobias, when they are mild, can be dealt with by parents,” says Carey. “Use books, stories and songs about the feared object, maybe videos as well, as this helps desensitise the child from the phobic object. Patience is required but it will often go away. If the phobic response is severe it requires professional intervention and, fortunately, short-term treatment is usually effective.
“The time to look for help is when you think you should be looking for help. Try to find a counsellor or psychologist with experience of working with children who have fears and phobias. Be sure you ask what the treatment protocol will be and feed information on progress back to the practitioner.”