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A Four-Step Approach to Dealing with Childhood Phobias
Sometime between the ages of 2 and 3, it dawns on children that bad things can happen to them. Some of their fears, like being eaten by monsters, are unrealistic while others, like being stung by a bee, are grounded in real possibilities.

Researchers at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University are having a great deal of success helping children conquer their fears. Psychology professor Thomas Ollendick has received a $1.6 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) to study the issue.

In this article, I will descote Ollendick’s approach and make suggestions of how you can use it to help your children deal with their fears.

Step 1: Desensitization

The first step of the program relies on a strategy called desensitization. By desensitizing, I mean exposing your child to what he fears in increasing doses. For example, a child fearful of snakes would start off being exposed to worms. Then you would show him pictures of small snakes before taking him to look at baby snakes behind a glass window. If you have a child who’s afraid of bees, you’d start out by looking through picture books of bugs. Next you might buy a bug cage at a toy store so your child could safely study them.

The goal of desensitization is to build up a child’s confidence. Desensitization programs have worked successfully for adults, by the way. Some people with a fear of flying begin to overcome their phobia by sitting in a grounded airplane.

Step 2: What are you Afraid of?

The next step is to find out what your child fears will happen. What does she think the bee will do to her? She may reply that the bee might chase and sting her—or, if she’s afraid of dogs, that the dog would knock her down and bite her.

Once you knows exactly what your child fears will happen, make up a game so she can test her predictions. For example, you could go to a pet store with a play area where people interested in buying a puppy can interact with the prospective pet. Usually, a little audience forms around this area. In being part of that group, your child can test out her prediction: Did the puppy bite anyone? Next, ask a neighbor or relative who owns big, gentle dog if you can visit the animal.

Step 3: Feeling Safe and Secure

Once you have accomplished step two, give your child safety tips about the thing she fears. In the case of dogs, instruct a child to ask the animal’s owner if the pet is friendly before approaching a strange dog. If a child is afraid of lightening, offer tips on how to be safe during a lightning storm.

In the case of bees, let the fearful child know that she can just walk away from the insects, which are much more interested in pollinating flowers, anyway. Also, reinforce how much bigger your child is than the bee. Find a dead bee to drive home your point; remind your child that bees are very scared of her.

Step 4: Act it Out

The last step is to model the actual experience your child fears. For example, you could pet and play with a dog while your child observes. Or she can watch from a distance as you approach bees pollinating flowers. By doing this, your child gets to see you being unafraid and reacting appropriately under the circumstances—going to another spot in the yard if the bees buzz too closely, for example.

As you can tell, this four-step approach takes patience and time. But it’s more effective than just demanding that a fearful child be a big girl or boy. Try it and find out!

Kenneth N. Condrell Ph.D Child Psychologist