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Irrational Fears
Emma used the graded step approach to eliminate her fear of meteorites landing on her tent.

Does your child worry about space, earthquakes, dying and the afterlife? Do they fear the unknown when faced with being alone in the dark or during camping and caravan trips?  Do they sit and ruminate for hours on end in which they are so absorbed they have little awareness of the present moment?

George, for example, worries constantly about volcanoes erupting and ending the world.

Jack is afraid of ghosts and vampires and fears going into another room alone.

Emma is scared of venturing outside in the dark because she worries about meteorites falling from outer space.

Many children experience irrational fears from time to time and here are three steps to help a child overcome irrational fears.

Thinking Time Dairy

One solution for children who worry too much is to set up a “thinking time diary” where they can think about their ruminations for a specified time each day, usually half-an-hour and no longer than an hour. The child is encouraged to write their thoughts down in their diary, or they may prefer to express their thoughts by drawing them or engaging in activities that reflect their fear. The idea for a child’s set thinking time is that they either become bored with their fear, which in itself eliminates anxiety, or they turn it around and become fascinated with it and as a consequence, learn interesting facts. A further benefit is that they learn to shelve their worries during normal activities, and until their next thinking time.

Here is an example of what George wrote in his diary during his agreed thinking time.

“My dad took me to the library to find some information on volcanoes and I discovered that Mount St. Helens is located where more than 80 per cent of the volcanoes have formed on land, and I live in England! I also read that the greatest number of the earth’s volcanoes are now hidden from view because they are on the ocean floor far away from where I live.”

George’s newly gained knowledge made him feel less anxious about volcanoes erupting in his home town.

“I feel so much better because I also learned that even if one does erupt it won’t end the world which is what I first feared. During my next thinking time, I’m going to do a chemistry experiment in the kitchen with my dad and create a visual reaction that looks like a real volcano!”

Emma also benefited from using the thinking time diary by reading books about space and meteorites.

“A small meteor can also be called a shooting star, a comet, an asteroid, even a fireball. As soon as a meteor hits the earth’s atmosphere, the air usually burns it until there is nothing left; now I’m less worried about the likelihood of one landing on earth.”

Fearing the Unknown

Going into a room alone or being afraid of the dark can feel eerie for some children. It tends to be that this eerie feeling expands to magical thoughts and thus avoidance behaviours. So when children feel ghost-like sensations or that a disaster will occur, they automatically think these are factual and that the images they create in their minds will suddenly appear or happen.

Listen, then Plan

For older children who fear ghosts you may be able to explain that an eerie feeling is a sensation that makes them believe a ghost is there, whereas a fact is something known to be true because it can be proved.

However, for younger children, this concept is too abstract and so the secret is to help alleviate their fears by listening to their stories about ghosts or vampires, then coming up with a plan. If for example, Jack tells his parent he’s afraid that ghosts come out in the dark, they could calmly suggest that what he needs is “the friendly-ghost-bedtime-plug-in” or a handheld friendly ghost light to help him manage and control his fears when he enters a dark room.

For vampire fears, his parents could tell him that vampires don’t like blue walls (you could pick something else in your child’s room that vampires don’t like, e.g. pink night-light). Eventually, the child’s fears fade when they are able to put logic on what is make-believe and determine what’s real.

Graded Step Approach

Another solution is to help a child face their fear in graded steps. At the top of a large piece of paper, write the child’s fear as a heading. For Jack, this is entering a dark room alone. Then draw a 3-columned chart underneath the centered heading.

List mini-goals in the first column, and include time-frames for each mini-goal. End the list with a main goal, and include a final time-frame.

Make the second column for placing achievement stickers next to their completed mini-goals. A bigger reward can be given for reaching the main goal.

Jack’s mini-goals were to enter certain rooms alone for three minutes, then seven minutes, then ten, which followed with a further 10-minute increase for each exposure, until he reached his main goal of 60 minutes. The child could enter a room with the hand-held light described earlier for shorter time-frames and they could take a hand-held game console for longer time-frames.

Before engaging a child in the graded step approach, explain that agreeing to do their mini-goals usually means they will experience higher distress levels than normal but that these levels start to reduce as they reach closer to their main goal.

This is where the third column comes in. Use this column to gauge and monitor distress levels before and after exposures so that the child can visually see their progress.

Emma Goes Camping

Emma’s fear was that a meteorite would fall to the earth’s surface from outer space and land on the family’s tent during a forthcoming camping holiday. In addition to her thinking time diary, she did the graded step approach as a further experiment to disprove her fears.

Emma agreed for a tent to be set up in the garden and camp with the family for a long weekend in which the experiment would show that largely her fears were based on feelings and not facts.

Emma’s first step was to stay in the tent for three hours (9pm-12am), then go back into the house with her mom while the rest of the family stayed in the tent throughout the night.

During the second night, she increased the time by three hours, and by the third night she was able to sleep in the tent until the early morning. The outcome was that she was able to go on the camping trip with her family with reduced anxiety.

The camping experiment would also benefit children who have insect fears, or something else that worries them about spending night-time outdoors.

George no longer fears volcanoes and he sure knows a lot about volcanoes to share with his friends at school.  Jack is able to go into another room.  Emma is able to enjoy a family camping trip free from fear of a meteorite falling from space.  And each child will pull out their Thinking Time Diary and perform the Graded Step Approach for each irrational fear they come across.

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Carol Edwards, CBT
Carol is a Cognitive Behavioral Therapist in the UK and manages OCD Kids. Carol works with children with OCD, Asperger's Syndrome and Depression and offers online CBT programmes for treating OCD and related conditions. As an adviser, Carol advocates for children and families in schools and colleges.