Thanks to a string of bad childhood experiences, mom-of-two KC Craig is seriously afraid of the dentist. It’s bad enough that she sometimes cries as she calls to make an appointment for herself or her daughters, and hearing a dental drill or smelling that dentist-office smell can trigger a panic attack. Despite having lived with this fear for years, she saw things differently when she became a parent. “I knew that I couldn’t let this fear continue to stop me from going to the dentist, and I didn’t want to pass that fear on to my kids,” she says.
Cheryl Freeborn, a mom of four, also has a phobia, but hers is more unusual. Touching or even stepping on a cigarette butt can send her into an anxiety attack, which she traces back to two family members dying of smoking-related diseases. Neither her seven-year-old nor her nine-year-old have shown signs of inheriting the fear (the same goes for her two young adult children), but that may be because Freeborn has intentionally avoided letting them witness it. “I won’t take them to a park or anywhere like that, and we didn’t go to a parade recently because I knew there would be cigarette butts there,” she says. “I feel like I’m depriving my children because of my issue.”
Phobias—defined as intense, excessive and persistent fears of an object or situation—are pretty common. According to the Canadian Psychological Association, more than one in 10 adults have a specific phobia, and they often start in childhood. A phobia can seriously interfere with your life, so it’s no surprise that parents worry about how theirs affects their kid, and, perhaps more so, if their kid will inherit it. Some moms and dads say their kids ended up with their phobia despite having never witnessed their parent experience it.
So what’s the best way forward for parents with fears to protect their kids?
There are a bunch of different factors that can contribute to the development of a phobia.
Biology and genes are definitely one element. “Anxiety runs in families, and we know there is a genetic component to it,” says Randi McCabe, a psychologist and director of the anxiety treatment and research clinic at St. Joseph’s Healthcare in Hamilton, Ont. This means a person can inherit a biological vulnerability to anxiety disorders, which includes phobias.
Clearly, life experiences play a role, too. Many phobias are rooted in a stressful event (like getting bitten by a dog, or Craig’s traumatic dentist experiences), which is called direct conditioning. Some phobias may have an evolutionary component and be rooted in our cavepeople days, when we lived in places with many more dangers and actual predators.
Seeing someone experience a phobic incident can influence that person to develop the phobia, too, through what’s called vicarious acquisition. In other words, trying to hide your phobia from your kid isn’t a bad idea. “The way a parent behaves in certain situations—kids notice that and absorb that. And if a parent is fearful, it’s quite often the child would develop a fear of that situation, too,” says McCabe.
Even just overheard comments or stories can make your kids more prone to developing your phobia—for example, saying things like “we never take an escalator” or telling a friend a story within earshot of your kids about why you are so afraid of needles. Psychologists call this informational transmission.
Hailey Surette is terrified of centipedes and freezes if she sees one. She’s nonetheless made sure to consistently tell her oldest, six-year-old Hunter, that there’s nothing wrong with centipedes but that different people are afraid of different things. Hunter, perhaps as a result, isn’t bothered by centipedes around the house—in fact, he’s the designated guy to trap them and take them outside. But he’s developed a fear of spiders, and Surette is working to help Hunter through it. “I don’t want this to get in the way for him, because spiders are so much more common than centipedes,” she says. “So, we try to be very into bugs. We think bugs are fun and amazing. We talk about how there aren’t any spiders that can hurt you where we live and we make sure that we are very interested in spiders when we do see one.”
Obviously, when you’re confronted with your fear and your kids are around, it’s important to minimize your reaction as much as you can and to try to speak neutrally about it, as Surette does. But if that’s not possible, it can still be a learning opportunity. “Showing kids that you’re under some stress is OK as this shows that it’s normal to have a variety of feelings, and it’s an opportunity to demonstrate healthy ways of coping,” says Stephanie Schwartz, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute in New York. “Let your kid know that you’re feeling worried about X, but you’re doing Y and Z to help yourself feel better. Say, ‘Even though I’m feeling X, I know I’m going to be able to get through it.’”
Surette is smart to not shield Hunter from spiders, because doing so would actually strengthen his anxiety through what’s called negative reinforcement, says Schwartz. Here’s how that works: A child shows distress at an object or situation; a well-intentioned parent steps in; the child is rescued and the anxiety is taken away. This happens repeatedly, leading to an increase in anxiety and fear because the child never gets the opportunity to learn that they can get through the situation, tolerate the anxiety and handle it. This is why a phobia can get worse over time, says Schwartz.
But the opposite of avoidance isn’t dismissing the problem and forcing your kid to experience their fear. Doing so is likely to drive their anxieties inward. Instead, say something like, “I know that you feel scared, but I also know that you can be super-brave and get through it.” This validates your kiddo’s feelings and shows your confidence that they will be OK. Help your child label what they’re feeling, suggests McCabe. “Say, ‘Those are your anxious thoughts talking; they’re trying to trick you. But we are going to boss those anxious thoughts around because they are not in charge.’”
If your child is older (say, eight and up), during a calm moment, have a chat about coping strategies (like taking deep breaths) and what they are fearful might happen. “Ask, ‘What’s the chance that that bad thing might happen and how do you think you’d be able to manage it?’” recommends McCabe. For younger kids, it may be more about acknowledging that they feel anxious, reassuring them that they will be OK and adding reinforcements for success. McCabe, for example, gave her anxious son his favourite cookies if he got on the school bus to go to kindergarten.
Many people don’t realize that phobias can usually be treated and even cured. The preferred treatment for specific phobias is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), where you’re slowly and safely exposed to the thing or situation that scares you. For instance, if you had a snake phobia, at first you might look at a picture of a rubber snake, getting used to it and perhaps touching the picture. Next, you would see the actual rubber snake, then touch the rubber snake. You’d then move on to seeing a picture of a live snake, to seeing a live snake to finally perhaps holding a (small, harmless) live snake. CBT is suitable for both adults and kids, and four to eight sessions are often enough.
McCabe also recommends workbooks that take readers through techniques to deal with anxiety and phobias. Ones she likes include Freeing Your Child from Anxiety, Revised and Updated Edition; Helping Your Anxious Child; and The Worry Workbook for Kids.
As for KC Craig, her DIY approach to her dentist phobia is working well. With help from friends’ referrals, she found a kind, gentle dentist; the office staff flagged her file with a big yellow “Very Afraid” note so everyone would know to be extra sensitive to her needs. Craig started small, first coming into the clinic for a quick checkup, then working her way up to a cleaning and X-rays. When she takes her daughters, four-year-old Hannah and five-year-old Charlie, for their appointments, her husband or her mom also comes along so she can discreetly step back for a moment to do some breathing exercises if she’s feeling overwhelmed.
Her family puts a positive spin on dentist visits, too. “We call them ‘princess polishes’ and the girls are happy and excited about it; they get their sticker and their little toy from the toy chest and it’s a good experience for them,” she says. These days, she can usually call the dentist’s office without getting teary, and she no longer needs to take anti-anxiety medication before an appointment. “Celebrate the wins, even a small win,” she says. “Be proud of every little step you take toward overcoming your fears.”