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Home Family Parenting Advice When a fear becomes a phobia — Good Parenting

When a fear becomes a phobia — Good Parenting

crying girlDear Dr. Debbie,

My little girl enjoys all animals — meeting people’s pets, watching wildlife and all the animal videos we can find for her. She has stuffed animals galore, but by my choice, we don’t have any pets.

What’s remarkable about this is that, so far, she hasn’t picked up on my irrational fear of snakes. I’ve made a superhuman effort to stifle my reactions to even drawings of snakes. If one pops up in a video, I find a reason to leave the room (I once had to grab my inhaler for an asthma attack on the way out). She even got to meet my cousin’s pet corn snake when I was not present.

What’s the best way to sail through her childhood without passing on this quirk of mine? She’s 4 years old and beautifully fearless.

Quivering in the Corner

Don’t miss last week’s column How to keep a student motivated — Good Parenting

Dear Quivering,

Rationally, you know that your cousin and the pet industry would not put your child in harm’s way. There are dangerous snakes and other animals in the world, however, neither a pet corn snake nor an image on a screen pose any physical danger. Emotional danger as you are experiencing, however, can be paralyzing.

Why do we have illogical fears? The roots of this psychological condition go back to our long ago ancestors and the dangers they learned to avoid. As humans of the past had bad encounters with certain varieties of snakes, birds, insects, etc., they or their surviving families learned to associate each creature with a negative outcome. Intelligence promoted survival, thus we have inherited some “natural” fears.

Overgeneralizing a potential danger, however, is a phobia. A pet snake of today is not the same thing as a rattlesnake or a viper in the days before modern medicine. Distortion occurs with a phobia. When the emotional part of the brain (the amygdalae) takes over, the rational part of the brain (the cortex) doesn’t work so well.

At some point in your own early childhood, you probably had a fright which involved a snake. Maybe you were tired or otherwise feeling vulnerable when a menacing snake appeared in a storybook, movie or at the zoo. Maybe an older child startled you with a snake puppet. Maybe you overheard (or misheard) a news story or an adult conversation in which a snake caused someone harm. Or maybe a dream transformed a frightening experience into a snakebite.

A phobia typically develops when a young person associates something with extreme feelings of helplessness. The distressing memory recirculates along the neural pathway that was lain during the frightening experience, no matter how long ago or how farfetched the danger. Even a thought remotely related to this imagined (or remembered) risk causes a rise in adrenaline, making the heart rate increase, the hair on the back of the neck stand up and the sensation of “butterflies” in the stomach. This emotion of fear affects thoughts, too, causing one to imagine the worst — far beyond the actual safety of the present moment.

To counter the development of a phobia, parents should pay attention to the things that frighten their children — whether these are rational or irrational. Acknowledge a frightening experience with reassuring words. “That was a scary story (or dream), but it was just a made up story. What would be a better ending?” (If it was a true story, point out, as Mr. Rogers advised us, the actions of the “helpers” in the story, and any heroic actions taken by your child.)

Logically, you can see that keeping your distance from snakes — even pictures of snakes — protects you from your fear, but it can be inconvenient. You could work on overcoming your fear. Desensitization is one approach. Learn about snakes, watch people handle snakes and eventually touch one being held by its owner. Another approach is to reduce causes of anxiety in your life along with general measures to assure your physical health. Taking better care of yourself is always a good idea for improved mental health.

In the meantime, continue your avoidance of revealing your irrational fear to your daughter. You’re correct that our fears are easily passed on to our children during the dependent years of early childhood. They believe what we model as our beliefs.

In a couple of years, around age 8, your daughter will have gained enough confidence in herself and trust in the world to understand and accept your vulnerabilities. Until then, keep protecting her from real hazards, but with enough room for her to develop self-assurance. You obviously know the difference!

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com

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