Fears and phobias

Is your child scared of dogs, bugs or the monster under the bed? These can be irrational fears that most children evetually grow out of. 

However, when a fear becomes so strong and real that it stops a child from functioning, something has to be done.

One example of this is the story about three siblings who were so terrified of dogs they were unable to go to playgrounds or even down the street – just in case they come across a dog.

To help these kids become braver and conquer their fears – which are very real to them – we first need to understand a bit about memories and the role they play in being overly frightened.

Memories are not fixed though, they’re fluid and are more collections of associations rather than being reliable, accurate retellings.

We need to keep in mind that our conscious thoughts, often triggered by a strong memory that can be good or scary, then spontaneously trigger our hippocampus and limbic system to respond with emotions and bodily sensations.

Many parents help their children with their fears by avoiding exposing them to the experience, which may sound like a loving thing to do. Sadly over time this feeds the implicit memory and makes the neural pathway in the brain even stronger.

These steps by Dr Kaylene Henderson are a great help towards normalising a fear and get back on track.

By using that approach, we can explore the dog fear for these three siblings, by changing how the memory of a scary dog has been imprinted in the memory bank – gradually and slowly.

  1. First buy (or borrow) some inexpensive soft dog toys.
  2. Create some imaginary play with these safe, good dogs.
  3. Read picture books about good dogs – Fearless by Colin Thompson is a lovely one to start with.
  4. Find lots of videos on YouTube of dogs being funny and loving. Make sure they are shown on a full size screen rather than a smart phone because the images are closer to real images and easier to anchor different memory associations.
  5. Find someone who has a good, safe, friendly dog for a visit to the children’s home. Take the introduction slowly. Remember dog etiquette – always ask owner’s permission, never move suddenly or go near a dog’s food, and pat gently on the back first before top of the head.
  6. Have several visits with the same dog – gradually playing more with it.
  7. Finally head to a playground – chatting positively, ‘maybe we will see another good dog…?’ and keep your fingers crossed!

The memory associations from implicit memory can be changed by using vivid imagination as well as real experience.

Parts of this article was first published in Essential Kids.