It is normal for many young children to have irrational fears like being frightened of bugs, spiders, snakes, the dark and "baddies" or monsters, which over time they gradually grow out of.
What do we do though when kids have huge irrational fears that border on being phobias about common things like dogs, masks, germs or even band-aids?
I recently received a message about three siblings who are so terrified of dogs they are 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.
There are two types of memories — implicit and explicit — and these interweave and work together all the time.
Think of driving your car, something we do almost without thinking after we have had a lot of experience.
This 'knowing' becomes largely automatic and is known as implicit memory. The ability to recall the act of learning to drive years ago is explicit memory.
Most of the time when we are recalling past experiences we tend to use our explicit memory, which is a conscious recognition of what happened in the past. In many ways it's the implicit memory that causes children to have emotional meltdowns and irrationally big, ugly feelings.
Take for example when one of my lads was about three and we visited a toy shop. An older boy nearby put on an ugly monster mask, and suddenly appeared in front of my son making a horrible grunting noise.
My son was so spooked he took off fast — his flight or fight response activated — and no matter what I called out to him, he was hell bent on escaping that threat! I managed to catch him just before he ran across a busy car park.
This experience became an emotional memory stored in his implicit memory and even as a 30-year-old he is still uncomfortable with masks.
Memory is fluid
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.
Baby steps to reduce fear
Essentially we need to gradually make a stronger neural pathway that makes it less likely that our children's fears will be triggered.
Natasha Daniels from Anxious Toddlers recommends that parents can help their anxious kids by 'personalising' the fear or anxiety. This can help weaken its power to create such a strong, spontaneous response. It is also a way of creating other associations that can make it harder for the original neural pathway to fire off.
Child psychiatrist Dr Kaylene Henderson writes about a step-ladder approach to helping your child respond differently to the trigger they have decided – rationally or irrationally – is life-threatening.
So using that approach, let's 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.
- First buy (or borrow) some inexpensive soft dog toys.
- Create some imaginary play with these safe, good dogs.
- Read picture books about good dogs – Fearless by Colin Thompson is a lovely one to start with.
- 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.
- 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.
- Have several visits with the same dog – gradually playing more with it.
- 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.
Creative visualisations or guided relaxations can also facilitate this by helping children see and feel themselves being braver. I offer a free audio on my website, Safe N Sound, which uses imagination to create a giant protector and this can be helpful in changing the pathway of frightened perceptions and feelings.
Parents can also create their own imaginary stories that can help children feel stronger and more capable.
Of course, if these strategies don't help seek some professional help as some patterns of anxiety can have many layers that need exploring.
Maggie Dent is one of Australia's favourite parenting authors. She is joining Dr Kaylene Henderson in Brisbane next month for a seminar on Children & Anxiety. She has also just announced a conference tour for March 2018, featuring four leading parenting experts from Australia and overseas, Raising Children Who Shine: Exploring Childhood from Toddlers to 10-year-olds.