How to Alleviate Your Child’s Anxiety

in Relationships

By Kristen Tang

140715 Figure 1

If your child has an anxiety problem, the good news is that anxiety is often amenable to treatment. However, fear and anxiety problems can get much worse if left unaddressed. This is because many people respond to fear with avoidance.

Fear conditioning starts from a young age

For example, a child who is afraid of dogs experiences fear when they see a dog. They respond to this fear by moving further away from the dog, which results in their fear decreasing. In other words, their avoidance of the dog is rewarded. Staying near to the dog results in their fear escalating. Thus, going near dogs is punished.

As time goes on, they are increasingly conditioned to respond with fear when they see dogs, and to avoid dogs. Because they never have a positive experience with dogs, they never learn to associate dogs with positive thoughts and feelings.

On the other hand, they may experience several incidents in which they could not escape from the dog immediately. When they eventually manage to avoid the dog, their fear would be at a higher level than normal. Thus, they are likely to associate dogs with greater and greater amounts of fear.

In this way, the child’s fear only escalates and never decreases. This can lead to more debilitating fears.

The child may also associate the feared stimulus (e.g. dogs) with related situations, places, people, or things. For example, if they often encounter dogs in the park, they may be afraid of going to the park. Eventually, this could even turn into an aversion to the park itself, not just the dogs in it.

Of course, it would be an overreaction to have your child see a doctor for a small fear. By understanding the basic principles of cognitive and behavioural therapy, you can help your child overcome minor fears.

Gently confront their fearful thoughts

Fear often has its roots in catastrophic thinking about what is going to happen. For example, a child who is afraid of dogs may think that all dogs will bite them.

It is thus important to find out what your child is thinking about the feared stimulus. Be patient and understanding, or they may be unwilling to discuss the fears with you, which would prevent you from resolving the problem.

If the feared thought is unreasonable, help them to challenge the thought. For example, if all domesticated dogs bit people, nobody would want to have a dog.

Children may also be afraid of new situations because they do not know what to expect, such as when they visit the doctor or a dentist for the first time. They may have misconceptions about the process which contribute to their fears. It may be helpful to explain what usually happens before placing them in a new situation.

Taking steps to resolve the problem

If the fear is linked to a genuine problem, take steps to resolve the problem. For example, some dogs might certainly bite. Your child can ask the dog’s owner if the dog is safe and friendly before approaching it. It is probably also best to avoid wild dogs.

Another child might be afraid to talk to others because they do not know what to say. You can coach your child on how to think up topics of conversation, or help them prepare some things to say beforehand.

If possible, help your child to learn how to resolve such problems themselves, instead of completely resolving it for them. For example, you could ask them what they enjoy talking and hearing about. If they enjoy this topic, other people may enjoy it too. You can also encourage them ask people they are comfortable with for ideas.

Sometimes, it may be the sensation of fear itself that the child finds upsetting. Fear results in unfamiliar bodily sensations such as increased heart rate, trembling, sweating, and muscle tension. When the fear is extreme, these sensations can make people think they are dying or having a heart attack. Explain that these sensations are normal fearful reactions, and will pass in time.

Help them to understand why they should face their fears

 Guilty Viewing Pleasures: Fear
(photo: Ingrid Richter)

As discussed earlier, anxiety and fear are caused by negative associations. The child associates something with some negative outcome. If they were bitten by a dog before, they might associate dogs with pain. Because they always react to dogs with fear, they also associate dogs with fear. However, they do not associate the feared stimulus with positive or neutral outcomes.

To overcome phobias, the child must learn to associate the feared stimulus with good or neutral outcomes. In other words, they must face their fears.

If the child stays near a dog for long enough, their fear of the dog will eventually subside. This is because it is physically impossible to remain in a state of extreme fear for very long. Thus, they will learn that they can stay near a dog without anything bad happening to them.

Children can generally understand that avoiding a feared item will not help in overcoming the fear. For example, if your child loves cats, you can ask what somebody should do if they are afraid of cats. If they always run away from cats, would they ever find out how nice cats are? In the same way, they cannot find out if dogs are nice if they don’t stay to find out.

Lead them through graded exposure

Though your child may understand that they need to face their fears, they may not be able to face it right away. An important part of exposure is not to give up halfway. As discussed earlier, avoidance exacerbates the problem. Thus, exposure goals must be achievable.

Firstly, you may need to teach your child to cope with the feelings of distress. Deep breathing is a common therapeutic method to deal with anxiety. Simply breathe in slowly to the count of four, hold your breath for a couple of seconds, then breathe slowly out for another four counts.

It is more effective to breathe into the diaphragm. This means that your belly should expand when you breathe, not your chest. You can demonstrate this by placing a hand on your chest and belly, and asking your child to do the same. The hand on the chest should not move much, while the hand on the belly should be moving as you breathe.

If your child tends to think catastrophic thoughts when they are afraid, teach them to challenge these thoughts. For example, they can tell themselves that most dogs are actually safe.

When your child is able to cope well with their feelings of anxiety, you can begin to expose them to their fears. This can be done in a gradual fashion. Start with situations which they find a little bit frightening, and move slowly to more and more frightening situations. Work with them to make a list of hypothetical situations, and arrange them from least frightening to most frightening.

Example of a gradual exposure to a fear

A possible range of situations may be as follows:

  1. Imagining a dog
  2. Looking at a picture of a dog
  3. Imagining moving closer to the dog
  4. Imagining touching the dog
  5. Looking at a toy dog
  6. Touching the toy dog
  7. Roleplaying meeting a dog for the first time, using the toy
  8. Watching real dogs from afar
  9. Going closer to a real dog
  10. Touching a dog’s fur
  11. Letting the dog lick your hand
  12. Playing with a dog for fifteen minutes
  13. Playing with a dog for half an hour

After that, slowly work through each item on the list. When your child is able to deal with the first item without fear, move on to the second item, and so forth.

Do not surprise your child with these situations. Work with them and ask them when they are ready to move on to the next item. This will build trust and a sense of autonomy and control over the situation.

It is extremely important not to move on to the next item before your child is ready, because stopping halfway is harmful in exposure therapy. If your child is experiencing a great deal of distress, and you are not able to help them learn to cope with it, you should not attempt exposure therapy by yourself. Instead, you should seek professional help.

Reward their bravery

 The rewards
(photo: Riq Bang)

Finally, you should reward your child with praise (or other incentives) when they face their fears. This will help them to associate facing their fears with positive outcomes and encourage them to face other fears in future.

In the end, the most important lesson is not that they can overcome their specific fear of dogs (for example). It’s that they can actively work to resolve their problems, instead of just avoiding them.

 

By guest contributor Kristen Tang. Via HealthMatters.sg, a Singapore Health and Fitness blog that aims to help you lose weight, keep fit, and live healthy. Click here to get our free guide “Eat Your Way to Health – Secrets of a Healthy Diet”.

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