Facts Are Not Thoughts
By Dr. Jay Greenfeld
Summer is upon us as we have been blessed with that wonderful May weather! Despite our love for the outdoors and the energizing feeling in the city after months and months indoors, there are many out there who struggle with aspects of the outdoors. Beyond seasonal allergies, some of the greater challenges folks have during summer include the phobias spanning animals and insects. As the weather warms up, dog owners thrive off of this season as they give their animals the freedom to embrace the great outdoors. They give themselves the luxury of engaging in the mindfulness acts of walking their dogs and truly taking in the moments the outdoors can provide. However, there are many children (and adults included) who struggle with certain phobias related to seeing dogs or being around dogs that often lead them to be more restricted during these months. Similarlily, there are individuals out there, especially children who struggle with a high degree of fear surrounding certain insects (e.g., mosquitos, bees, wasps, or spiders). Anything that is seemingly very tiny that could have little effect if bitten by one of them can easily create some of the greatest fears for children.
Often times, children who struggle with these fears will refrain from going outside or need to create the most ideal circumstances in order for them to go outside. They will make every effort to control every aspect of their outside environment and circumstances in order to go outside. As children, they will often think of many worst case scenarios situations that will lead them to be more inhibited outside. They may think of one incident in their lives when they were stung by a bee or bitten by a dog and they will create a negative association with that one incident and then think it will happen all the time. The extreme thinking of always and never - "I will always get stung" or "I never feel safe around bees" limits their capacity to recognize that sometimes or one time does not mean all the time. With these fears and hesitations, it is easy as parents to feel very frustrated, especially if your children have expressed these fears despite having confronted in the past. There are three areas of focus to help your children overcome some of their struggles.
First of all, it will be imperative that you and your children review their feelings. When reviewing their feelings, the focus is not solely on the fear or the phobia, but more so identifying a wide range of feelings so they become accustomed to sharing what they struggle with in any area of life. The more comfortable they can become with expressing their feelings (good or bad), the easier it will be to express the feelings they have when they feel anxious. Engage in routine exercises at home where you either give them a list of 2-3 feelings words per day or allow them to express when they felt those feelings and eventually shift to having them express their feelings freely when prompted without any cue words. Be sure to have them also identify where they feel these feelings in their body so they are not making inaccurate connections with their feelings. For example, "I feel nauseous, I cannot go to school today. I am sick." Often times when your children know they are likely going to have to confront one of their fears because of a field trip to the zoo or a park with dogs, they may feel that Anxiety in their stomach. The feeling they are experiencing is merely the brain communicating with the body. The brain is placing emphasis on the physical response to fear rather than addressing the cognitive response.
Therefore, the next phase would be to address your children's thoughts about their fears. What are they thinking when you ask them about their fears of certain animals or insects? What thoughts have they created with respect to what they think will happen if they are in the presence of a dog at the park or a bee at the playground? Many children will create their own cognitive distortions the same way adults do, but they will not know how to explain it or understand it. One key point will be for you to work with your child exploring if their thought is true, what is the worst thing that can happen, what is the best thing that can happen, and what is the most likely outcome based on all their experience? Even if they have been stung by a bee once in their lives, one stinging in the 5000 times they have been outside equates to less than 1%, meaning 99.9% of the time they have experiences success. Further explore the holes in their thinking, but challenging their thoughts with statements that include but are not limited to: "just because one event happened, you do not know how future events will go."; "just because you feel something will happen, those feelings are not facts." Instead of thinking it must be a perfect outing, decrease the extreme thinking and recognize that you would "prefer the outing goes well, but it is not an absolute must."; "instead of thinking about all of the bad things that could go wrong if we go to the park with dogs, focus on all the good things that come with the park outing." Having your children engage in these types of thought stopping exercises will likely give them a greater sense of perceived control over their circumstances. Moreover, ensure that you are writing these alternative statements out so they can reread them as often as they need to.
Finally, engage in various forms of exposure with your children. Try your best to not exacerbate the negative association with them by avoiding the fear they are trying to avoid, it will likely worsen the connection. Instead, engage in exposure activities with them, gradually. Start with exposing them to magazine pictures of the animals or insects they fear, then have them watch videos on the same topic, then have them go to pet stores, farms, parks, neighborhood walks where they may confront the animals they fear. Lastly, have them pet the animal or let a bug sit on their hand without them needing to move. If they have a fear of dogs, maybe start smaller and expose them to a small rabbit so they get used to the animal being in their presence. Help give them the evidence that they can do it and be ok before, during, and after. Most importantly pair each of these steps with gigantic rewards so they feel the success rate of their actions and efforts. Give them the chance to feel proud of their accomplishments. Start to create a more positive association with their fears so they can enjoy these days of the season that we all know will be gone too soon!
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Facts Are Not Thoughts
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