- 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.
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