I have a phobia of spiders. My first response to seeing one of the creatures I’m afraid of (and yes – my avoidance of the word itself is entirely intentional) is to get away, as quickly as I can.
Over the years, this has meant ejecting myself from a packed theatre, mid-play; swerving my car so dangerously that I nearly crashed; and running out of work and going home (some ex-colleagues played a trick on me by sending me an email marked ‘urgent’. I opened it to find an enormous photograph of one).
I once got home to my flat after a night out at 2am, and had to sit and wait on the pavement for hours until my husband got home. I couldn’t bring myself to put my key in the lock, because there was an eight-legged intruder next to it (and this was Wales, mid-December).
I never go out on Halloween, because 31 October means plastic ones hanging from fake cobwebs everywhere. And, as you’ve probably guessed, I can barely bring myself to type the word “spider” out (doing so, now, has increased my heart /ate and sent adrenaline rushing through my body).
Phobias don’t have a single cause – there are a number of associated factors – but given they can be learned behaviours, I’m extra worried about passing mine on to my kids.
Phobias are classified as an anxiety disorder, Anxiety UK tells HuffPost UK, and therefore a mental health issue, which can cause “significant anxiety, stress and panic”. For this reason, people with phobias often enter into a pattern of avoidance, which can vary in severity – from avoiding touching an object, to being unable to even contemplate looking at a picture of one.
So, are phobias passed on to our kids? “It is possible for phobias to be passed from parent to child,” the charity says. “As children, we are led to believe that our parents, guardians and other significant adults know best and therefore if they express phobic and avoidance behaviours, we accept that there must be a rational reason for this, and subconsciously learn to be afraid too.”
I’ve tried all the treatments available for my phobia – from hypnotherapy to CBT, and neurolinguistic programming (NLP). I’ve even been on live TV with Paul McKenna to try and get over my fear, but nothing has worked so far.
I’ve tried to hide my reactions to the creatures as much as I can in front of my children. And – touch wood – so far, it appears to be working.
The problem with my phobia is that it’s also completely irrational – and I won’t always be able to prevent the instinctive ‘fight or flight’ response that happens when I see one. How can I stop modelling damaging responses to perfectly harmless situations, such as a non-poisonous house spider clinging to the curtains? I’m currently trying these four tips from Barnardo’s with my kids – so if you’re in a similar boat to me, these may help.
1. Stay Calm.
Kids are primed to copy behaviours they learn at home, and will often mirror parents’ body language. So, if you can appear relaxed (even if the opposite is true) it might help reduce the likelihood of your child adopting those physical reactions to the same stimuli. If you can stay calm for a few seconds and then make a swift exit away from said phobia, your kids are less likely to notice.
2. Talk About Your Fears.
If you do have a reaction to something in front of your kids, be straightforward about it, the charity advises. Kids can usually tell when a parent is lying, so be frank with them and admit you’re scared – but that it’s okay. And if your child is scared, get them to talk it through to help them realise that what they fear is unlikely to happen, or be as bad as they think.
3. Show Different Perspectives.
There is likely to be a friend or family member who isn’t scared of whatever you are – so let them explore it with your child. For me, this means letting someone else take my kids into the reptile house at the zoo.
4. Get Help.
There are loads of treatments available, advised by the NHS, for phobias and severe fears. In some cases, a combination may be recommended, which may include self-help techniques, talking therapy and medication. If you can try to get your own phobia under control, the chances are you’ll have a less severe reaction in front of your kids – which might help in turn help them.
For more information and help with any form of anxiety disorder including phobias, contact Anxiety UK on 03444 775 774. www.anxietyuk.org.uk.