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  • Writer's pictureOlga Shchedrinskaya

Exploring underlying issues for children’s anxiety, phobias and fears

Updated: Aug 12, 2020

Sometimes it seems to me that there is something in common between the work of a detective and a clinical counsellor. You often have to go through versions of answers and solve a kind of riddle – why the client has this or that "symptom" or issue? Depending on the answer (option) you can build the algorithm for helping.

When I hear from parents that this is the main reason for seeking help – children having fears, I will sort out and research about options (such as the ones shown below) and look for confirmation or refutation of each of the possible hypothesis.

After all, you can look at a phobia or fear (or the reasons for its occurrence) as a:

1. Consequence of a difficult or traumatic experience. Fear is related to what the child took part in / saw / heard / felt. Here, a story will be heard about the child somehow being in a situation where something happened (accident, fire, other similar incidents).

2. A way to get something important or realize some need through influence and interaction. We are talking about situations where a child through expression of fear can change the alignment in the family. For example, child will sleep with his mother in the same bed, if he talks about his fear of the dark. In addition to moving to mom, it can also "force" dad to sleep in another room, because the bed is not big enough for three. This, in turn, will affect the relationship of the couple. It is important to explore circular connections, and the potential "secondary benefit" for all participants. It is especially important to understand how the reactions of parents can accidentally "anchor" a symptom.

3. A sign of a more serious pathology, when in addition to fear there are other difficulties at home or community, but fear is a noticeable tip of this iceberg. In these cases, it is important to learn more about the fear itself and its features and clarify other important points about how the child behaves and how he feels (how he sleeps, eats, what and how he plays, can he cope with tasks such as going to school or kindergarten).

4. A signal – “I have too many changes and I do not have time to adapt to them” or “I do not have enough stability and points of support”. This is about cases when fear began in the background or after major changes – moving, changing family composition, parent losing their job.

5. A family theme, or a reminder of a past experience when something bad or dangerous happened not to the child, but to someone else. For the child this topic is important, even if many years have passed after the event. This is not a myth, but reality – a difficult traumatic experience can cause fears decades later, because the purpose of this fear is to be a memory and protect future generations from the terrible. For this type of fear, it is often appropriate to associate with what is called transgenerational trauma, or generational trauma.

6. A realization of one of the tasks of the age stage. Yes, there are age periods when fear is a sign of a completely normal development of thinking and emotional-volitional sphere. At the same time, their types of fears will be specific to different ages; and there are children for whom each stage will be noticeable, and there are those who go through these steps almost imperceptibly.

7. A biological defense mechanism of the body which has switched to the "alarm" mode. In this case, one might think that a useful and important reaction of the “ancient” part of the brain which is responsible for keeping the body safe may be behind the fear.

8. A background attitude – “I am small, helpless, I have little control and strength, and the world around me is big and dangerous”. Here, you can think in the direction of why this child has a feeling of lack of control and security and how you can influence this.

9. A reaction to secrets and understatement in the system, and not always a correct assumption – "some danger is hiding from me."

10. A sign of an overabundance of impressions (including positive ones) for a child with a very excitable and sensitive nervous system.

Now this list already contains and will continue to grow such factors as the general background of anxiety around (in the world, family, news, and general mood). Recently, highly sensitive children have been complaining about having bad dreams and nightmares. Some children (and adults) suffer from obsessive thoughts or form stereotypical "rituals" – for example, wash their hands more often or avoid touching even household items.

It is important to solve such problems and puzzles and help children to be stronger and more stable.

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