Sue Scheff: How to Treat a Specific Phobia

Kara Tamanini is an author and therapist and I can always find great information for parents on her website.
Most children go through different phases in which they are scared of different things when they are young. However, a child can develop a specific phobia to different things in which their fears are excessive or unreasonable. Now, you may say that everyone is scared of something at one time or another. However, children that have specific phobias become extremely fearful or terrified when a parent or adult even exposes them to the specific thing they are scared of. Children most often develop specific phobias to the following things: being in the dark, water, animals, going to the doctor or the dentist, and lastly thunderstorms or bad weather.

Children may display their fear or anxiety of a particular stimulus (ie… a dog) if the child is scared of dogs in a variety of ways. Children will typically display their anxiety or fear over their specific phobia by having a temper tantrum, clinging to their parents, crying, or they freeze and will not move.

How can a child’s specific phobia be treated? Most commonly, parents will bring their children in for treatment when the child’s phobia has become so excessive that it is interfering with the child’s day to day life. A common phobia for children is a fear of dogs. The steps that must be taken to treat a specific phobia are slow and methodical and exposure to the stimulus which the child is scared of (ie… dogs) should be done with the assistance of a therapist or mental health professional. Parents/caregivers should never attempt to treat a specific phobia without the help of someone who understands phobias and the treatment thereof.
The therapeutic method or approach that is used to treat specific phobias is called systematic desensitization or in other words, the therapist slowly exposes the child to stimulus’ related to their child’s phobia. In the case of treating the specific phobia to dogs, here are steps that could be taken by the therapist:

1.) Expose the child to something about dogs. A good exercise would be for the child and therapist to cut out pictures of dogs from a magazine while in the treatment session.

2.) Read stories to the child about different dogs, such as Clifford the Big Red Dog, Lassie, Snoopy, or stories about Scooby-Doo. The idea here is to not flood the child with too much about dogs, but work up slowly so as to not overwhelm them.

3.) Have the child when they are ready sleep with a dog stuffed animal.

4.) Have the parents post pictures of dogs on the refrigerator that they have cut out of magazines as a family activity

5.) Watch videos or a movie about dogs when the child feels they are ready. The emotional and psychological status of the child in regards as to whether they are ready to be exposed to the stimulus (ie.. dogs) is in the clinical judgment of the therapist with input from the child and his/her parents

6.) Have the parents take the child somewhere in which dogs will be present, ie… park, but keep the child at a distance for the dog/dogs. Over a period of time usually weeks, the parent with the help of the child’s therapist will decrease the distance in which the child is in the proximity of the dog until the child is able to stand next to a dog. The child does not have to pet the dog unless he/she feels comfortable in doing so.

The steps outlined in treating a specific phobia, in this case dogs, can be used with any type of specific phobia that a child is experiencing. What is being exposed of course will be different depending on the nature of the specific phobia. Treatment of a specific phobia should be done slowly; cautiously in order to not overexpose children to the stimulus and traumatize them even further to what they are scared of. We call this flooding. Consult a mental health professional in order to treat a specific phobia.
Follow Kara on Twitter at @KidTherapist

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