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Phobias in children are more common than you might think. You've probably heard of arachnophobia (fear of spiders) but how about arachibutyrophobia—the fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of your mouth? Kids aren't always the biggest fans of vegetables, but did you know a severe fear of veggies has an official name (lachanophobia)?
Phobias are intense but irrational fears, and although they might be hard to understand, they're not unusual. A Florida International University survey of clinical psychologists found that 6.8 percent of children had problems with fears and phobias. Common phobias in children include dogs, spiders, clowns and the dark. Most children go through phases of being afraid. Occasional nightmares and separation anxiety are typical stages of development. But if your child seems unusually worried for a long time, he might have developed a phobia.
So how can you tell if your little one's fears are a phase or a phobia? These tips will help you spot the telltale signs.
- Evaluate the fear. Think back to when your child's fear began—is it a recent development? Intense anxiety must last more than six months before it's considered a true phobia, according to the University of Rochester medical center. If spiders make your child squirm, watch his reaction every time he encounters an eight-legged creepy crawler. If he's not afraid every time, you're probably not dealing with a phobia.
- Identify the symptoms. Ask your child how talking about his fear makes him feel. Is he nauseous? Does his heartbeat speed up? Even if he denies experiencing physical effects, don't brush the issue under the rug. Although some children "will admit their fears to someone who is very close to them and offers unconditional support," other children "will not share or admit their fears to anyone," says Dr. Julia Gallegos, professor and researcher at the Center for Treatment and Research on Anxiety (CETIA) of the University of Monterrey in Mexico. Keep an eye out for common signs, like your child asking lots of questions about his fears, avoiding scary situations, constantly checking for 'danger' all around him, difficulty resting or sleeping, and appetite changes.
- Educate your child on early signs. Your kid can nip his phobia in the bud if he learns to recognize early signs of anxiety. Explain that his body can help him by giving him clues, such as a headache, tummy ache or sweaty hands. If he notices the early signs that signal a phobia, encourage him to take deep breaths, read his favorite story, or talk to you about his feelings.
- Model coping behavior. Don't reinforce your child's fears. If you wince as the needle approaches, he'll know there's something to be afraid of. Try letting him watch you being brave as you get a flu shot, and show him how it's possible to have a calm and relaxed attitude when facing a fear. If you have an anxiety or phobia of your own, seek help from a professional, or practice relaxation techniques such as yoga or deep breathing exercises. You cannot model a calm, relaxed attitude if you're anxious yourself!
- Build social support networks. Loneliness can worsen general anxiety and increase the intensity of your child's phobias. Strengthen his social support networks by providing plenty of playdates and opportunities for him to keep up his friendships. Dr. Gallegos suggests building community networks through activities like planting trees, volunteering, or pursuing a hobby.
- Encourage your child's problem-solving skills. Talk with your child about the fear, and encourage him to come up with his own ideas to cope by making suggestions. If he's spooked by needles, ask him, "Do you want me to sit with you and squeeze your hand?" or "Will it help if you look away while the doctor gives you the shot?"
- Reward his efforts. Use a star chart to track your child's attempts to get over his fears. Dr. Gallegos suggests parents should develop a "gradual coping plan" and use the chart to reward the child for achieving each step. A child who is afraid of the dark might first earn a star for staying in bed for five minutes in the dark, and build up to a bigger reward when he manages a full night.
If your child's anxiety is really bad, consider seeking professional help. But just knowing he can take proactive steps to control the situation will help him feel more comfortable, and with a little time and effort, your child can conquer his fears.