From the October 2018 issue

Understanding and Conquering Kids Phobias and Deep-Seated Fears

Kids phobias can be intense. Discover what's behind these deep-seated fears and how to help your child overcome them.

Kids phobais

“Will there be dogs there?” My daughter repeats this phrase just about anytime we visit someone’s house, even if we’ve been there before. She’s 5 and has a fear of dogs. My husband and I were surprised by this sudden phobia in our child, as we’ve had giant breed Newfoundlands since before she was born.

Kids phobias like this can come out of nowhere, which is something other parents have told me about their children’s fears.

What started as an apprehension around other dogs turned into full-blown hysterics when she’d see a dog, including our own. We’ve had to work through this with her, and it’s not been easy.

We aren’t alone. Kids of all ages face different fears, like dogs, water, the dark and storms. According to Laura Bloom, owner and therapist at Shorepointe Counseling in St. Clair Shores and Grosse Pointe Woods, parents can help kids work through their fears and develop lifelong coping skills.

Root of the fear

Chesterfield Township mother of four Lindsey Rotary’s son had a fear of storms that left him physically sick and emotionally distressed for about two years.

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“His fear was so strong for a while that even clouds would send him into a panic. Any clouds – not just storm clouds,” Rotary says.

Her son’s panic could set in on an otherwise totally normal day.

“It got to the point where it could be a beautiful day and the appearance of any clouds would cause enough anxiety that he would throw up and immediately want to get indoors if we were doing anything outside,” she explains. “An actual storm would cause a full anxiety attack and he would hide under furniture to try to escape it.”

The fear started when he was about 7 or 8 years old. They sought out its root cause with the help of a therapist, but nothing stood out.

“The only thing we could come up with was that it coincided with when I had my third child, his youngest sister,” Rotary says. “There was a significant age gap between them, and I wondered if it was all the changes in the household that went along with a new baby and him no longer being the youngest that maybe triggered his anxiety.”

Kelly Soley, another therapist at Shorepointe Counseling, says that childhood fears can arise for a number of reasons, including the passing of a loved one or even the birth of a sibling.

“It is important for parents to understand that fear is a normal part of your child’s development,” Soley says. “At any point that your child addresses a fear, it is important to hear them, validate those concerns and try to understand the origin of the fear, within the context of their development.

“The fear may pass quickly,” she adds, “but the feeling of being connected and understood will follow your children through the inevitable fears to come.”

How to respond

“Facing our fears is a part of life that begins early on. Done with the help of a loving parent, the process can be much easier,” Bloom says.

One of the first steps to help children face kids phobias is to discuss the fear and the way they are feeling.

“It’s important for the parent not to make fun or discredit their feelings,” Bloom says.

When it came to her son’s fear of storms, Rotary says they were honest with him about any incoming stormy weather and tried to understand what he was feeling.

“It was very distressing for him, so we chose to handle it head on. We didn’t downplay his fear, the weather or dismiss his feelings,” she says.

Parents should offer suggestions of ways to face the fear, but don’t expect them to confront it all at once.

“By including the child’s input in coming up with these steps, the child will be given a sense of control and feel more confident,” Bloom says.

While getting help for her son’s fear of storms, Rotary says the therapist offered new ways to approach the topic.

“At first we let him watch the weather, but sometimes that would make his anxiety worse. After he started therapy, his therapist suggested that he learn about weather rather than watch the weather,” she says. “So we would check out library books or watch educational videos rather than watch dramatic weather forecasts.”

Parents should offer encouragement when their child makes small steps in overcoming their fears, Bloom advises. Keep in mind that addressing the fear now – and in a positive way – can help prevent longer lasting fears.

Different fears may require different responses from parents, Soley points out. A fear of water, for example, will require a different approach than a fear of going to school.

“Any type of planning and preparation ahead of time is certainly helpful, but we cannot give in and let children avoid school,” Soley says. “At times, a parent struggling to leave their upset child may actually be feeding into the fear, by showing their child that they have worries about it too.”

Treating the panic

Clarkston mom Tonia B.* has dealt with her daughter’s fear of dogs for nearly a year. Before visiting anyone’s home, Tonia checks to see whether any dogs will be present. Then she prepares her daughter that the hosts may have dogs, and reassures her that the dogs are friendly.

“If she is scared, downplaying doesn’t typically work unless we’ve been somewhere a while and she’s seen how the dog behaves,” she says. “We’ve been successful just once with talking her through it and getting her to calm down enough to pet the dog.”

While Tonia can’t pinpoint when the fear started, she believes her daughter may have encountered a slightly aggressive dog in the neighborhood.

“We just hope she outgrows it as she gets bigger and more confident around animals,” Tonia says.

Bloom says parents and caregivers should help their children through difficult situations when it comes to kids phobias. Parents can take small steps to expose the child to the fearful object or event and help them to take control of the fear.

Making strides

Local mom Jenny Smith’s* son has a fear of public restrooms.

“At first, I just thought he was being stubborn about training, but after a few total meltdowns, I stopped trying to get him to go if at all possible. He has literally gone 24 hours without peeing in certain situations,” she says. “He’s gotten better about going if my husband is around, but I can see the anxiety.”

Smith’s son, now 12, has struggled with the fear since he was 3 years old. When he needs to use the bathroom and there’s no option other than a public restroom, he tends to get anxious, bite his nails and talk rapidly.

In a pinch, Smith attempts to get her son to a one-person restroom with a locking door, reminds him to use the stalls rather than a urinal and even waits just outside the door of the bathroom so he knows she’s nearby.

“I have talked to his pediatrician a few times and he thinks he’ll outgrow it, but it isn’t getting better. I am kind of at a loss at what to do,” Smith says.

Although kids phobias can begin at any age and each child will get through it at a different rate, it’s important to see progress in the child’s reaction to the fear, Soley explains.

“Fear of the dark, for example, can linger through many developmental stages, but the reaction you would expect from a 2-year-old will look different than what we expect of a 7-year-old,” Soley says.

For parents who aren’t seeing any progress or feel like they aren’t getting anywhere, Soley recommends seeking out help from a therapist. This can be beneficial to the child and the parents.

“Parents have their own fears that children could be picking up on, so it is just as important for parents to get support, too,” Soley says. “Consistency with children is important and trying to be proactive could help alleviate distress.

“There are many books that address topics such as starting school, going to the doctor, the loss of a loved one and so on,” she adds. “Books can support communication around fears, which that in itself can help alleviate them.”

It’s also a good idea to check in with your child’s doctor, Bloom adds. Pediatricians can also help parents find a therapist who focuses on working with children.

“Since fears can be manifested in physical symptoms such as head or tummy aches, it is important to also consult your pediatrician,” she says.

Breathing through it

“Breathing techniques are one way to help a child become calmer and more mindful in the face of stressful or fear-provoking situations,” Bloom says. Different types of breathing exercises produce different results. Consider one of these for your child.

Hissing breathing

Breathe in through the nose, taking in a long breath. Slowly release through the mouth, making a hissing noise – like air deflating a balloon. “Tell the child to slow their thoughts as they slowly release the air,” Bloom says. “This technique slows the child down both mentally and physically.”

Humming breathing

Place one hand on the belly button and the other hand on the center of the chest. Take in a deep breath through the nose and hum while breathing out. “This technique works well when children are feeling overwhelmed or irritable,” Bloom notes.

Fish-face breathing

Take a deep breath through the nose, expanding the cheeks. Exhale through the mouth, making a “bloop, bloop, bloop” sound. “This accomplishes two things. First, it helps the child laugh, which naturally helps them relax,” Bloom says. “And the child is flooding the body with oxygen, which helps us stay more alert and gives us the ability to relax.”

Photo by Lauren Jeziorski

*Name changed or modified for privacy.

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