My Anxiety Plan (MAP) for a Specific Phobia
The following strategies are designed for you the parent to use with your child as s/he begins to tackle specific phobias. These strategies are best used for children with mild-moderate signs of a specific phobia. For children with more severe symptoms or who have been diagnosed with a specific phobia disorder, we recommend treatment with a mental health professional, although MAP strategies can be used at home to support your child’s therapy work.
Step 1. Helping your child become an expert on anxiety
This is a very important first step, as it helps children understand what is happening to them when they experience anxiety. Teaching your child that the worries and physical feelings he/she is experiencing have a name -anxiety- and that millions of other people also have anxiety, can be a great relief. Help your child become an expert on anxiety by providing him or her with facts and important information.
To learn how to explain this to your child, see Anxiety 101: What You and Your Child Need to Know About Anxiety and Talk to Your Child about Anxiety and the ABCs of Anxiety: Understanding How Anxiety Works and Fight-Flight-Freeze.
Step 2: Teaching your child about a specific phobia
- Reading or explaining some of the information outlined on the specific phobia main page can help your child to feel more in control of what is happening to her. Knowledge is power.
- Explain to your child that we all have fears, and that is normal, but for most of us our fears are not too big, or don’t last that long, and don’t get in the way of our every day life. A phobia, however, is a very strong fearful reaction to a thing, place, or situation that does not go away, and sometimes gets worse over time. The fear is also much bigger than it needs to be when the actual risks are considered. For example, if a dog growls at you once, it would not make sense to never go near any dog ever again. Phobias can stop people from doing important things. Talk with your child about how the phobia is interfering with his or her life, and how it is affecting the family. What is the phobia stopping your child from doing?
- You can also compare your child’s big fear to a thermostat that is set too high and the temperature is no longer comfortable. Tell your child that you will work together, as a team, to give her tools to help cope with anxiety and gradually face his or her fears to get the thermostat back to a comfortable setting.
- Let your child know that phobias are fairly common, and h/she is not the only one who is struggling with one
Parent: So, now that we know more about anxiety, I want to tell you what a phobia is.
Child: Is it like anxiety? I think I’ve heard of it before.
Parent: Yes, that’s right. Remember when we were talking about anxiety, and I said that we all have fears?
Child: Yeah. Even you and dad!
Parent: Right. Many of these fears make sense. For example, it is normal to be afraid of a dog if it is growling at you! A phobia is when someone has a really strong fear of something that isn’t really dangerous. Sometimes people have a phobia of elevators, heights, or spiders.
Child: Ugh, I don’t like spiders. But they don’t freak me out THAT much.
Parent: When Aunt Susan was your age, she had a phobia of dogs. She would cry, scream, or freeze when she saw a dog, or even just hear a dog bark! For a while she couldn’t even watch TV shows with dogs in them!
Child: But some dogs are dangerous and have rabies.
Parent: Yes, some are, but most of them are harmless, especially in our neighborhood. Aunt Susan was afraid of very friendly dogs, or even sleeping dogs. She couldn’t even look at pictures of dogs. That is a phobia – when you are afraid of something even when it isn’t really dangerous. It can make life really hard! Aunt Susan had to walk four extra blocks to school just to stay away from the old dog down the block. She wouldn’t even go to birthday parties when there was a dog there, even if the dog was locked in the basement.
Child: That is kinda like me and balloons. I freak out. I don’t want to go near them at all!
Step 3: Creating your child’s MAP
The best way to help your child deal with a specific phobia is to give him or her tools that can be used to cope more effectively. These tools are intended to increase your child's ability to tolerate anxiety, rather than to eliminate anxiety. Anxiety exists everywhere, and therefore it is an illusion to believe we can eliminate the source and experience of anxiety. It is far more effective to provide your child with the tools to tolerate and cope, rather than to control and escape. For a specific phobia, you might want to use any or all of the following tools to create your child’s My Anxiety Plan (MAP). Facing my Fears will be one of the most helpful tools you can use, although you will likely find benefit and relief from many of the others as well. These tools are listed in a recommended order, although proceeding in this order will depend on the needs and interests of your child.
- Talking to Your Child about Anxiety
- When anxiety becomes a problem: What’s normal and what’s not
- Naming the Bully
- Learning to Relax: Calm Breathing
- Learning to Relax: Muscle Relaxation
- Balanced Thinking
- Cognitive Coping Cards
- Addressing Excessive Reassurance Seeking
- Facing My Fears
- Rewarding Bravery
- Tolerating Uncertainty
Final point: Although increased knowledge and the many tools available on this website can be very effective in helping you to manage your child’s anxiety, sometimes it is not enough. Sometimes children have very severe anxiety, and despite all your best efforts, your child might still be struggling daily with anxiety symptoms. If this is the case, seek some professional help through a consult with your family doctor, psychiatrist, or a child psychologist/mental health worker.