QUESTION: My nine-year-old girl is generally a happy child, though sometimes prone to being a little anxious and shy. She has always been a bit nervous of dogs; I think it started years ago when a friendly dog jumped up and licked her. We thought she would grow out of it but, if anything, it has got worse. Now she avoids doing things where she thinks a dog might be around. For example, she will avoid doing sports she likes or even going on a family walk because she thinks a dog might be there, although she often doesn’t admit this. When can we do to help her?
Specific childhood fears about new situations or dogs are a very normal part of growing up. However, in some situations these fears become more fixed and lead to children missing out or avoiding important things in their lives. In your case, your daughter has developed a specific fear or phobia of dogs and this is becoming more problematic. In this situation it is important to help her directly confront and overcome her fear. Below are some ideas that might help.
Help your daughter talk about her fears
Although your daughter may be a little embarrassed or find it hard to talk about her fears, it can help if you are really understanding and accepting. Compassionately name and acknowledge what might be going on for her: “I know you might be a little bit nervous of dogs. That’s okay; lots of children feel that way. What do you think might happen if you were out and we met a dog?”
Help your daughter make a decision to tackle her fears
“I know how much you like our family walks or doing sports, and it is a shame that the fear gets in the way of that. Would you like to manage these fears better so you can do the things you enjoy?”
Tackle the fears step by step
You want your daughter to learn, step by step, not to avoid the things she fears, starting with the smallest step first. For example, you might start with looking at pictures of dogs together and discussing her fears, and then move on to going for a short walk together and then learning to tolerate walking with a dog in the distance and, in the future, approaching a known friendly dog to pet him. The key is to go at her pace.
Coach your daughter in managing her fear
Whatever step you are on, help your daughter notice the fearful thoughts in her mind (for example, the dog might bite her) and the feelings in her body (for example, butterflies in her tummy). This allows her to detach from her thoughts and to see how the bodily symptoms simply pass over time.
Finally, encourage her success by going at her pace and praising any steps she makes. Seek help from a child mental health professional if problems persist.
Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, March 2015.
John writes in The Irish Times Health+every Tuesday.