While it’s normal for young children to have irrational fears, they tend to abate as kids grow up and learn more about the world. By the time the teenage years roll around, most fears have diminished or disappeared. A teen who is still having intense fears of anything in particular might have a phobia. A phobia is a fear that can become disabling if not properly treated, so it’s important that teens receive phobia treatment as soon as possible. If your teen is in phobia treatment, here are some ways that you can help.
Recognize the Symptoms of a Phobia
There are some fears and presentations that are normal and common. For example, if your teen is nervous about meeting the parents of a romantic partner and has a faster heartbeat and sweaty palms, that is not abnormal. Before a big test, he or she might have a mild stomachache; this is also normal and common.
A person having a phobia, however, might experience the symptoms of a panic attack. Those would include heart palpitations, sweating, the inability to catch their breath, stomach upset, a feeling of dread, and a pins-and-needles sensation in the hands or feet. Just thinking about the object of fear could bring on symptoms; your teen might not even need to see the object or be immersed in a stressful situation. A phobia usually has an impact on a person’s life that extends beyond one specific situation. For example, someone who is phobic of dogs might go out of their way not to chance an encounter. They might refuse to walk to school or to the bus stop, or they might avoid making plans with friends who have a dog.
Don’t Put Off the Phobia Treatment
Once a child is old enough to think rationally, strong fears and phobias will probably not go away on their own, if they haven’t already. Early phobia treatment is not only more effective, but it will also save your child years of fear and anxiety. Also, an untreated phobia can lead to an anxiety disorder later. If your teen is showing signs of a phobia, talk to his or her primary care physician promptly, even if they’re not due for a checkup anytime soon. The doctor can determine whether it’s time for a referral for a mental health care practitioner.
Cooperate with Exposure Therapy
Many times, phobia treatment involves something called exposure therapy. This exposes the fearful person to the trigger a little at a time. For example, if someone is phobic to dogs, they might first watch a dog walk by from a safe distance and wait for the fear to pass. Once they can handle that, they will observe the dog from a closer distance, then closer still. At some point, they will work on holding the dog’s leash and petting the dog. This can be applied to almost any phobia, and your teen’s mental health professional will coach him or her through the basics.
As a parent, it might be up to you to facilitate some of these exposures. Talk to the professional in charge of your teen’s case and find out how you can help.
Let Your Teen Know that this is Not His or Her Fault
A person with a phobia often knows that their fear is irrational and that their behavior is not typical. Still, they have no control over it. Your teen cannot control his or her physical responses to the fear without treatment. Your adolescent might feel self-conscious and guilty about the fear. Be sure to let them know that this is not their fault. Nothing your teen did could have brought on the fear, and these feelings are not anything that they chose to experience. If your teen is feeling like he or she is doing something wrong, encourage them to talk to their mental health professional about these feelings.
Encourage a Healthy Lifestyle
Anxiety can be made worse by unhealthy choices. Encourage your teen to eat healthy foods and to avoid stimulants like caffeine and smoking cigarettes. Also, there is evidence that regular exercise can reduce symptoms of fear and anxiety, so try to get your teen off of the couch and onto a sports team, to the gym, or even just on a daily walk or bike ride around the neighborhood.
In addition to exercise, sleep is very important to mental health. Many teenagers are deficient on sleep, but the average teen needs eight to ten hours of shut-eye per night. If your child is staying up too late and not getting the sleep he or she needs, stress good sleep hygiene and, if necessary, remove electronic devices after a certain time so he or she can get the sleep needed for good mental health. Daily exercise will make sleep come more easily for most people, so even if your teen is active, stepping it up a bit might help if they’re having trouble with insomnia.
Learn Relaxation Techniques
Knowing how to relax is a skill that can help anyone, including your phobic teen. It can also help you, so learn along with your child and practice it yourself, if you aren’t already. Some ways that you might relax include meditation, yoga, and quiet activities such as knitting or drawing. You can try deep-breathing exercises. You can also try tightening and relaxing each muscle group in your body, one at a time. Talk to your child’s mental health professional about ways that you can help him or her relax.
Supporting your teen through phobia treatment is largely a matter of getting him or her to the appointments and enforcing the suggestions and techniques recommended by the therapist or counselor. Find out whether a support group exists that could help, and, if so, make arrangements for your teen to attend. Helping your child combat this fear now can positively impact the rest of his or her life, so know that your support is vitally important to your teen’s phobia-free future.