Kid Fears in Adults: The Dark and Other Phobias

As kids, most of us were afraid of dogs, clowns, or things that go bump in the night. But for a lot of us, childhood fears never wore off. And that isn’t just inconvenient, it’s potentially embarrassing. Thankfully, phobias are some of the easiest fears to vanquish. This week, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen shows you how.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
Episode #158

3) Start slowly.

How to vanquish your phobia? In short, practice facing your fear. But you don’t have to fly a kite in a downpour to get over your fear of lightning. Instead, you can start slowly.

Once I worked* with a woman who was so afraid of snakes she didn’t even like to say the word “snake.” So we started there. She said the word “snake” hundreds of times until she got bored. Then she wrote the word “snake” until she got bored. Then we looked at pictures of snakes online. Then YouTube videos. Then we went to a pet store. The point is that she didn’t have to lock herself in a plane with Samuel L. Jackson and hundreds of vipers as a first step. For working on your own fear, start with something that makes you feel uneasy, but not pee-in-your-pants scared. Then, do it until it’s boring and move on to the next level.

4) Don’t just wait for it to be over. 

Your phobia has persisted like a bad midwinter cough because you try to steer clear of whatever it is you’re scared of. So when you face your fears, make sure you’re not covertly avoiding the experience.

When you face your fears, make sure you’re not covertly avoiding the experience.

For example, if you’re claustrophobic, it won’t help to ride an elevator but stare at your phone the whole time. Instead, be present when you face your fears. Don’t try to distract yourself, like counting the seconds until it’s over or whistling a happy tune. Instead, focus your attention squarely on what you’re afraid of. It’s not comfortable, but wait it out. Eventually, three things will happen: one, you’ll experience that nothing bad happens. Two, you’ll find you can handle whatever it is you’re afraid of. And three, your brain will get bored.

A note: if you’re a parent, consider working on your own phobias for the sake of your kids. Phobias often run in families. Anxiety in general has been shown to be genetic, but specific fears are often transmitted by modeling a certain behavior. Kids learn by watching you, so if you stand on the table and scream whenever you see a cockroach, it’s likely your kids will, too.

Okay, so let’s put it all together for our listener Oliver: first, be nice to yourself. Of course this has persisted, because you didn’t get any guidance or support around it. So starting now, give that support to yourself. And then, take action. Practice. Gradually shift from sleeping with the light on to a dim table lamp. Then move on to a nightlight next to the bed, then a nightlight behind the dresser, and then no light at all. Take a walk around your neighborhood at dusk, then at night. Go for progressively longer drives at dusk, in the early evening, and then late at night. Give the darkness your full attention and rinse and repeat until it’s boring. Eventually, you’ll be able to sleep, drive, and live your life in 50 shades of dark.

*Details of clients I’ve worked with have been changed to protect their privacy.

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About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
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