How to avoid passing on phobias and fears to your children

Whether it’s feeling yourself tense up when a dog lollops over to greet you or going jelly legged when there’s a big fat spider in the bath, many of us have these irrational fears. Rationally, we know we’re bigger and more frightening than that house spider and that Labrador is just a friendly puppy, but overcoming these fears can be difficult sometimes.

An estimated 13% of the adult population will develop a specific form of anxiety known as a phobia at some point in their life, according to the charity Anxiety UK. While the ‘fight or flight’ response has enabled humans to survive (avoiding being tramped on by a mammoth is a sensible survival instinct), when a person develops an exaggerated or unrealistic sense of danger it’s known as a phobia. At its worst, a phobia can cause people to avoid situations or worry about a future time when they could encounter the situation or thing that frightens them.

So how do we avoid passing these anxieties on to our children? How can we encourage them to think logically about something they’re afraid of, even if we can’t do it ourselves and how can we ensure a fear doesn’t turn into a full-blown phobia? Here are some suggestions…

Let’s pretend

Try to keep your fearful reactions under control when you’re with your children. Children pick up on and copy parents’ behaviours. They’re attuned to parental body language, so even if you don’t articulate your fear they may still mirror it, which is why it’s so important to do your best to pretend you’re not scared and appear calm. The good news is most parents will do this instinctively as they know how life-affecting their own phobias can be – and don’t want the same for their children.

Seek help for your own phobia

Almost all phobias can be successfully treated and cured and the most effective way of not passing on your phobia to your children is to beat your own phobia. Techniques might include talking therapy or gradual exposure to the object, animal, place or situation that causes fear and anxiety. Specific or simple phobias focus on a particular object, animal, situation or activity, for example, fear of heights, deep water, the dentist, snakes and spiders.
Complex phobias tend to be more disabling than simple phobias and are often associated with a deep-rooted fear or anxiety about a particular situation or circumstance.

The two most common complex phobias are agoraphobia and social phobia. Treating complex phobias often takes longer and involves talking therapies, such as counselling, psychotherapy and cognitive behavioural therapy.

You can find out more about seeking help for phobias on the NHS website.

Talking about fears

If you notice your child becoming scared or fearful, it’s a good idea to ask them some questions: What is it they’re scared of? What do they think might happen? Get them to challenge their own thought process by talking about how likely it is that what they fear will really happen.

Try not to ever tease children about their fears – that way they may clam up and their anxieties might increase. But you can try to lighten the fear. For example, you could turn your child’s fear of cats into a funny story about a girl and her annoying cat or give a silly running commentary of what the dog in the park is thinking with a funny voice.

If your child experiences a traumatic event, for example, being knocked over by an overexcited dog or falling off a climbing frame, try not to ‘make it into a big thing’ but talk about it afterwards. Phobias don’t have a single cause, but they can develop after a particular childhood incident or trauma.

Sharing fears

While you don’t want your child to pick up on phobias, it can be soothing for children to be told that everyone can feel scared of things, including you. Admitting that you too used to be terrified of the imaginary monster under the bed or that you also used to get nervous about speaking at school assemblies is a great way of letting your child open up about their own fears. That way you can talk about coping strategies, what worked for you and people you know and they won’t feel isolated or ‘different’.

There are lots of great children’s books about managing fears and finding reassurance, including The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark, Can You Sleep, Little Bear? The Gruffalo and The Koala Who Could.

It takes a village

If you can, give your children lots of opportunities to be with family members and friends who don’t share your phobia. In this way your fear of creepy crawlies can be reduced to a funny quirk, while for example they dig for worms with their granddad; or your queasiness about heights can be scaled by climbing trees or the park climbing frames with their cousins and friends.

Try not to avoid ‘scary things’

When you’re with your child try not to avoid the thing that scares you, otherwise you risk your own phobia interfering with your child’s full life experiences. You might be scared of dogs but don’t stop going to the park with the kids as this will mean that they don’t get any practice of being with dogs. When approached by the thing you’re worried about combat your own adrenaline rush by taking deep breaths, smiling and encouraging your child.

Seek help if your child’s fear is getting out of control

Always seek the help of a professional if you fear yours or your child’s fear is becoming debilitating and having a really negative effect on life. Adolescents and teenagers can be particularly prone to social anxiety disorder or social phobia, which at its worst would cause them to avoid speaking up in class, meeting friends, eating in public. Your GP can refer you to the appropriate help.