Watching a child react to a specific and persistent fear can be distressing for parents. Sometimes, a parent feels so distressed by their child’s response that she feels compelled to alleviate the fear by removing the object or avoiding the activity. By reducing or removing the child’s exposure to her fear, there is an initial sense of relief for both the child and the parent.
However, this practice can limit what families do together and can force parents to come up with workarounds for situations that should be straightforward. The pattern of trying to change circumstances to allow a child with anxiety to avoid certain situations or activities is called ‘accommodation’. The thing is that while accommodation may seem like the best option to resolve an emotionally fraught situation, in the long run, it may exacerbate your child’s anxiety. Once a pattern of accommodating is established, it reinforces the child’s belief that they cannot cope with certain situations. Furthermore, setting up the pattern creates an expectation that fearful situations can always be avoided. And patterns, once established, can be hard to break.
We want to help our kids get the most out of life and live confidently and without fear. As parents, we can learn ways to help our children overcome their fears and manage their anxiety. Helping a child to overcome a specific phobia might require some planning and management of our own reactions to our children’s distress, but it is possible. By gradually exposing our children to their fears, we can help them to better manage their discomfort.
Parents can be tempted to avoid challenging children who are showing anxious behaviour because to do so either feels ‘mean’ or parents worry that they could further upset their children. ‘Challenging’ a child’s perception of a fear can be done in a calm way that focusing on problem-solving and building reliant thought patterns. The aim of any intervention is to guide children to learn ways to settle themselves in the face of their fears – and for them to eventually learn ways to reframe their stressful experiences in age-appropriate ways.
A great way of thinking about the process of conquering the fear is like ascending a stepladder. Each rung of the ladder represents a small step (planned out beforehand) towards a bigger goal of managing a particular fearful situation. At each rung of the ladder, the child might need a moment to pause, sit with the discomfort and manage their emotions. This is called an exposure ladder.
This process allows them to get better at managing the reaction of their amygdala (the ‘fight flight or freeze’ part of the brain) by soothing it through coping techniques that have been learnt and practised before attempting the exposure ladder. The cortex or ‘new brain’ is driven by words, thoughts and logic. Its power can be harnessed to learn techniques to actively reduce fearful sensations and thoughts.
Teaching your child to use their new brain to soothe their old brain will help children to get their fears in perspective. By engaging in experiences that trigger their fear in a graded way children can develop new ways to respond to their fears. They may not ever eliminate the fear entirely, but they will be much better equipped to manage their emotions.
If you want to learn how you can help your child manage their anxiety and become more resilient Parentshop is running an interactive webinar. Hosted by Michael Hawton MAPS this interactive webinar is being held over 3 evening sessions, 11th, 18th & 25th August, 6.30pm – 8.45pm for $59.