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Whether your child is afraid of spiders, snakes or the sensation of grass underfoot, there are effective ways of dealing with these phobias. SAMANTHA PAGE believes you can allay their fears by confronting your own. t a recent wedding, as guests of the bride and groom filed into the church and took their seats amid flowers and familiar love songs, the scene was set for a day of romance. A sudden flurry of activity alerted the congregation to the arrival of the bride and - my favourite part - that first glance of the soon-to-be wife. My reverie was short-lived, however, because that's when I heard the bloodcurdling screams from the two year old at the back of the church. It seems, from what I was later told, that the sight of the veiled woman in white was like seeing Freddy Krueger from A Nightmare on Elm Street. The child's mother has subsequently declared weddings - at least the church part - off the agenda for now because her toddler was genuinely scared out of her wits by brides, veils and volumes of tulle. It's not easy moving through the world when you're terrified, whether you're afraid of monsters under your bed, creepy goggas or wedding veils, and while the behaviour may seem extreme and baffling to others, it's deadly serious to whoever is experiencing the perceived threat. According to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag), as many as 8% to 11% of children and adolescents suffer from an anxiety that affects their ability to get on with their lives. "We all have fears," points out Doug Symons, a clinical child psychologist at Acadia University in Canada. "When they're excessive and begin to interfere with your life, we define them as phobias." It's not surprising that, on average, about one in 30 children will develop a genuine phobia that meets the diagnostic criteria. These fears are persistent, last several months and could affect everyday activities, such as playing, going to school and interacting with others. They can also develop at any time and persist for a lifetime. Thirty-year-old Tania, for example, loved dogs when she was a toddler until she was attacked by one when she was five years old. Today, she still breaks out in a cold sweat when she sees dogs and gives them a wide berth if she encounters them. "After all these years, I still experience an overwhelming need to flee when I come into contact with dogs," she says. from parent to child According to psychologist David H Barlow, director of the Centre for Anxiety and Related Disorders at Boston University, writing for Time magazine, modern people learnt what to be afraid of and how to handle it from their ancient ancestors, but while our distant ancestors may predispose us to phobias, it's our immediate ancestors - specifically our parents - who seal the deal. He noted that as many as 40% of all people suffering from a specific phobia have at least one phobic parent, which is seemingly a clue that phobias could be genetically influenced. There is as much data that suggests that watching Mom or Dad react with exaggerated terror at a cockroach is the kind of conditioning that can also create a bona fide fear. In a 2011 study conducted at Rutgers University in the US, experts determined that we learn an aversion to creepy crawlies in the first years of our life. During the experiment, seven-month-old babies were shown two videos, side by side, one of a snake and another of a non-threatening animal. At the same time, the babies were played a recording of either a fearful human voice or a happy one. The infants spent more time focused on the snake videos when listening to the fearful voices but showed no signs of being afraid, the researchers reported in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science. PHOTOGRAPH: SHUTTERSTOCK.COM ot onildteri and adoiescents suffer from an anxiety that affects their ability to get on with their lives. ohf all peave t ol plet sufferin one g phobic m art specific phobia In phase two of the study, three year olds were shown a screen of nine photographs and told to pick out a named object. They identified snakes more readily than flowers, and more quickly than other animals that looked similar to snakes, such as caterpillars and frogs. The children who were afraid of snakes were just as fast at picking them out as children who had not developed a snake phobia. "What we're suggesting," says Dr Vanessa LoBue, an author of the paper, "is that we have these biases to detect things like snakes and spiders really quickly, and to associate them with things that are yucky or bad, like a fearful voice." Cape Town mother of two Lori Cohen makes a strong case for teaching her children to have rational fears. "They need to know it's okay to be frightened of things, but I also encourage them to try anything once. If they don't like it, they don't have to do it again, but I'd never force them to pick up a snake if they didn't want to. I'm not thrilled about holding reptiles, but I do it to show my children that I also try things I'm scared of, and it has helped me overcome my fears." face your fears Clinical psychologist Beverly H Smolyansky gives five steps to help you manage your child's anxieties: 2 1 Validate Your child's perception is his reality. Dismissing or downplaying his fear might make him feel worse. Try to justify his feelings without saying it's right or wrong. Model calm behaviour Children pick up when their parents are anxious or afraid, so if you jump on a chair when you see a spider, it's going to be difficult for your child to overcome his fear. Try to remain calm and mimic positive behaviour. 3 Educate yourself and your child Children and adults feel better equipped to handle * the unknown or unexpected when they're educated on the topic. Do the research and discuss your findings. It may allay both your anxieties. 4 Tc.,„., i.,,,,itive self-talk When you and your child encounter a bug and she shows fear, try to rationalise with her. Ask her who's bigger, her or the bug? Who's stronger? And give her the words to say to herself: "I can do this. It's just a little bug." 5 Start off by observing Watching an insect and seeing what it does is a great way to expose your child to it without it being an overwhelming experience. Don't try to force him to let a spider walk on his hand or make him climb to the top of the monkey bars. Exposure should always be done methodically. Remember that while childhood fears are fairly common, if it's debilitating in any way, it's probably best to get help. The best place to start is with your paediatrician, who may refer you to a clinical psychologist.