Helping children overcome phobias

Wednesday, July 6th, 2022 08:07 | By

Sandra Sioma’s four-year-old son cannot stand the noise produced by loud speakers in church, horn speakers and posho mills; hence it is difficult to be with him in such kinds of places.

“In addition, the sound produced by a radio while searching for a channel, or a power saw when its is at work cutting makes him uncomfortable. He covers his ears with his hand and cries uncontrollably ,” says Sandra.

Phobias in children are an anxiety disorder that cause excessive fear of things or situations. They can compromise everyday activities such as playing, visiting outdoor places such as parks or even shopping.

Caroline Bongo, a mother of seven, says that her children have experienced some kind of phobia at some developmental stage of their lives. The phobias include darkness, height, dogs and ghosts.

Common fears

“As a parent they look up to me for protection, I have them talk and share about their fears. One will wake up frightened from a bad dream, or just can’t sleep at all. During such times, we just allow them to talk and if we feel they are too afraid, their father, George Bongo and I allow them to spend the night with us,” says Caroline.

“We pray for them all times. They need to have the peace that someone above them, and stronger than us is watching over them. To do this, we ask them to repeat the words of the prayers we make so that they own them,” she adds.

Mercy Amuguni Masiga, a Play and Art Therapist and psychologist says phobias are intense fears without a threat. “While fear keeps one safe, a phobia is so deep that it can incapacitate one irrationally, just a thought of the element of fear can cause a response. Phobias can cause impairment and stop one from being productive in relationships, school or work. They can also cause severe anxiety and depression,” says Mercy.

Mercy, author of; Let’s Bond (A Family Guide to Health, Wealth and Happiness), says children experience more fears and phobias than adults. This is because of their active imagination and their inability to separate imagination from reality. 

Common children fears include; fear of the dark, fear of being alone, bugs, animals, monsters, movie villains among others.

She offers: “Growing up, there was a being in my life called Varioka. Varioka was this huge creature with one eye and one foot who stole children and ate them. Well, Varioka had been a character in one of my mum’s bedtime stories that my older siblings modified until he became real; real in my mind and in my life and oh, how he haunted me! I feared the dark because I thought he would come for me. I was afraid of being alone in the house and in wide open spaces. Even as an adult, I still remember that fear. It was intense, it was incapacitating, it spelt helplessness.”

Dos and don’ts

The expert says meeting a child’s basic physical and emotional needs is the best place to start with dealing with fears and phobias in children. Modelling an environment of unconditional love where children know that they are always loved despite their fears or phobias is also important.

“Avoid belittling, joking or teasing children about their fears. Do not punish them for being afraid. Validate their feelings. Accept that they have these feelings and that you are willing to help them walk through them. Help them rationalise. Give them facts concerning what they fear. Help them know there are no monsters in the closet or under the bed and that not all insects are dangerous. Talk about your own fears and how you handled (or handle) them. Give them time. Even as you help them, it may take time. Most fears, if not reinforced are out grown and you can look back and laugh at them,” Mercy advises.

Susan Catherine Keter, a transformational life coach, says many traumas are as a result of the experiences the child goes through, which include, but are not limited to traumatic events.

“Children learn from adults hence some phobias are learnt from others. For example, a child may develop fear of darkness because a caregiver uses scary stories about darkness to control the child, such as stories of monsters hiding in the dark ready to attack children who disobey,” she adds.

Keter shares how  a child may develop a fear of loud sounds because of growing up in a home or environment characterised by violence.She opines: “When a child manifests phobia, it is important to examine the environment just in case something such as the methods used to discipline the child could be contributing to it. Be non-judgmental and supportive.”

Though most fears can be resolved at home and many children outgrow their phobias, there are instances when you have to seek professional help. Signs to look out for include; when the fear/phobia interrupts the quality of your child’s life. Or if the child has a problem playing, relating with peers or family or is unable to attend school, when the fear/phobia emanates from trauma, when the child experiences regular nightmares or their sleep is grossly affected and if a child attempts to harm themselves or others as a result of fear.

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