How To Avoid Passing On Your Phobias To Your Children

19/11/2012 10:45 | Updated 22 May 2015
How to avoid passing on your phobias to your childrenAlamy

Like most parents I delight in taking my child to the park. We love the playground area and the café, but we also love just running across the grass, tripping over our own feet and examining whatever we come across – leaves, sticks, daisies etc. But where there are parks there are dogs, and when a dog gets too close I am no longer the stress-free parent enjoying showing the world to my toddler, and being shown it by her, but a tense ball of fear, convinced that this tail wagging, panting creature is about to jump up and savage my baby.


That's right, although I am a 34-year-old grown woman, I am scared of dogs.


Most of all I am scared of big dogs, or mean looking dogs, and especially big and mean looking dogs. But I must admit I am also scared of little yappy dogs and even medium sized friendly looking dogs.

But though I suspect I will never get to the point where I am happy about one licking my face or saying hello by jumping up at me, one thing I am determined not to do is pass this fear on to my daughter. So I have to pretend I am not afraid.

Sometimes I compensate for this too much in the other direction. "Look at the doggy," I say. "How lovely you are Mr Dog. Woof woof doggy. Nice doggy." The mean looking young men with the pitbulls don't quite know what to make of it and usually rush their dogs away which is fine by me. Though I am completely ready to throw myself between the canine teeth and my daughter, I am full of hope I won't have to.

Pretending I'm not scared is the right thing to do, says Emma Citron, a Consultant Clinical Psychologist and a member of the British Psychological Society. "Modelling calm behaviour and trying not to let your own avoidant phobic tendencies interfere with your child's full life experiences is a very good start. Most parents do this instinctively as they know how handicapping their own phobias can be."

Like me, Lucy, 33, mum to two year old Jonny, also tries to hide her phobia - in her case creepy crawlies in the garden. "I hate all kinds of creepy crawlies and of course if we are in the garden it's exactly the kind of thing that fascinates a two-year-old.

"Jonny loves to pick up snails and bring them to me. I don't want him to know I am scared of them so I end up snapping at him to put them down because they are dirty. Now of course I'm worried that I am making him scared of dirt."

Doctor Angharad Rudkin, a clinical psychologist and also a member of the British Psychological Society, suggests that the most effective way of not passing on our own phobias to our children is to treat our own phobia.

If we're no longer scared of something then the child won't pick up on it. But she accepts this isn't always possible, or practical. She thinks it is important not to avoid the thing that scares you.

"If you're scared of dogs, don't stop going to the park with the kids as this will mean that they don't get any practice of being with dogs. When approached by the thing you're worried about take big deep breaths, smile and be encouraging of your child. Praise and rewards after for being so big and brave will never go amiss."

She also differentiates between a phobia and a rational fear. Being scared of something that is likely to hurt you is not a phobia. "Being rational means weighing up the likelihood of something being dangerous and taking careful steps to protect yourself from that danger. So, if you see a grizzly looking dog in the park, steering your children away in a calm and light manner is the rational way to behave."

As well as not liking dogs, another fear of mine is spiders. One of my daughter's favourite books at the moment is a counting book, bought for her as a present by someone. Although it looks bright and flowery from the cover, it counts to twenty using animals not known for their fluffiness – one snail, two crickets, three millipedes, 4 bumblebees, five grasshoppers, 6 pond skaters, seven flies, 8 spiders and so on.

I am torn between 'accidentally' spilling something on the book one day in order to be able to throw it away, and encouraging her to read it so that she doesn't inherit my own phobia.

Perhaps what I should do though, is read it with her and let her know which ones bother me in particular. "Mentioning that everyone can feel scared of things including you is actually a good idea as it will encourage your child to talk about their fears and you can discuss together ways of trying to overcome them," says Citron.

Nevertheless I am looking out for a less scary counting book – just as long as it's not a dog one!

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