- Anxious children are responding to family stress. This doesn't mean that you're abusing your child or she's being sexually molested by someone, although if that were true, it could certainly lead to a phobia. In my work with families I have found that the stressor is often something as simple as moving away from friends or family, or mother being preoccupied with caring for an aging parent. Children around the age of 9 seem to be particularly at risk for responding to this type of stress by developing a phobia.
- Anxious parents make for anxious children. This is no way to suggest that it is the family's fault that the child has developed a phobia. But children "act out" family stress one way or another. It's probably easier to treat a phobia than a drug addiction, so perhaps there's a way to be thankful. And while I can certainly understand a parent worrying about a child with a phobia, don't forget that your worry is one more thing the child has to deal with. Try to remain calm, hopeful and optimistic while still taking it seriously and seeking help.
- Seek family counselling. Instead of assuming the child is the one with "the problem" set the microscope to examine a wider area. What's happening at home? What is the family stressor? If you as parents can get some family counselling and you can talk through the current situation with someone it will probably go a long way in helping your child.
- Don't allow avoidance. Avoiding what a child is afraid of will lead to a full-blown phobia or make an already existing phobia worse. Be kind, gentle and supportive but calmly let your child know that s/he must still go to school, to grandma's, etc.
- If your child isn't eating seek medical help. Let your child know first, again, calmly and firmly, that if they don't eat they will end up in hospital where they won't be able to come home until they start eating. This isn't a threat, it's just a fact and they need to know that they must do something to help themselves.
- Reassure your child that vomiting isn't dangerous or harmful. It can't hurt them in any way, so they don't need to fear it. This is more helpful than constantly reassuring them that they won't vomit. Kids can "sense" that you're b.s.-ing them on this one (how do you know if/when they will vomit?) so they will keep asking you over and over until you're about to throttle them.
I get dozens of emails from families who are concerned about their emetophobic children. (I include teenagers when I say "children.") I can certainly understand their worry. Their child does not eat, does not want to go out, washes hands incessantly, etc. I am also impressed by the concern that parents have by reaching out for help. Unfortunately my practice is full right now and my wait-list, depending on your time zone, can be up to a year long. So here are some tips for those worried parents.
Emetophobia Awareness Day is officially May 1st, 2012. I say "official" rather tongue-in-cheek. It's only official because I thought it up and said so! But the point is, we emetophobes need to come out of the closet for the good of all.
Emetophobia is so common yet most doctors, therapists and researchers have never heard of it. It's been featured on the TV show "My Strange Phobia" as though the woman featured was some kind of fluke of nature. As a result people suffer in isolation, are looked down upon by their partners and families and cannot find any help or hope from the medical community. This is wrong. Part of it is our fault.
For some reason emetophobic people (myself included, in the past) are horribly ashamed and embarrassed to admit that they are afraid of vomiting. Sometimes we try it, tentatively. "I'm deathly afraid of vomiting" we say. To which they reply "Well nobody likes it." As if we would then go, "Oh ok" and we'd get our lives back. But the problem is, these sorts of belittling comments silence us. This can go on no longer.
What I've noticed by listening to literally thousands of emetophobics online and after spending the past two years treating exclusively emetophobics is that we are not specific enough when we talk about our phobia. Some people use the word "phobia" loosely, meaning they squeal and jump up on a chair when they see a spider. This is not a phobia, it's just a fear. A true phobia of spiders would mean your life is completely ruined and you are debilitated by the fear. You can never sleep at night in case there's a spider in the house. You spend every waking hour vacuuming and cleaning and spraying with Raid. You can't work, socialize or even go out of your house because other places are not as "safe" from spiders. That's a phobia.
So we need to not only come out of the closet, but we need to say more. Explain more. I find in consulting with other therapists that most of them have no idea how scared an emetophobic is of vomiting. Some therapists have tried ludicrous ways of treatment such as suggesting that the emetophobic vomit in order to "see how it can't hurt you." Imagine having a fear of spiders and being forced to be covered with them for an afternoon. Now imagine having a phobia and doing the same thing. This is not "treatment" it's cruelty.
We have to speak out, and we have to be more explicit. We can't back down when our families or our doctor or therapist tries to brush the phobia off as not very significant and believes it can be overcome by just "getting over it."
Stay tuned to this blog (or subscribe) for ideas, press releases, tips and more as we get closer to May 1st. Meanwhile, think about what media outlets you might have access to or what PR/marketing folks you could approach for some help.