Avoiding avoidance

On the surface you would never know that I had this problem.

You see, I am terrified of skydiving. I have never been sky diving and chances are that if you tried to get me on a plane to go sky diving my reaction would be similar to that of my cat’s when I decided to try and give it a bath when I was a little boy. I swear I haven’t been able to smile properly since that cat latched on to my face with its claws as it launched itself towards the other side of the house.

I am fine in airplanes. In fact I love flying. But I do not love the idea of jumping out of a perfectly good airplane and plummeting towards the rock hard ground with a glorified bed sheet flapping behind me.

Does everybody have this fear? Well apparently not. Plenty of people actually have to jump out of planes regularly as part of their job. Others do it for fun. Fun? Can you believe that?

As the years roll by my fear of skydiving shows no abating. In fact I would say that I am probably more afraid of jumping out of an aircraft now then I have ever been. And do you know why I am still afraid of skydiving? (Aside from the obvious reason that it involves jumping out of a plane?!)

Avoidance. The more I avoid something the more frightened I become of it.

If, on the other hand, I joined the air force and had to practice jumping out of moving aircrafts on a regular basis I would probably eventually get over my fear. Granted, there would always be some nerves, which is good for peak performance, but I would probably lose the paralyzing fear I feel about it now.

It’s the same with childhood fears too. And while some fears should be fostered (such as strangers, running out onto the road, big, vicious dogs etc.) others need to be discouraged by breaking your child’s pattern of avoidance.

As long as your child avoids what it is that they are afraid of, they will continue to be afraid of it.

Let me give you some practical ideas about how to help your child learn to avoid avoidance.

  •  Firstly, it is always good to start off small. No one wants to be thrown completely in the deep end straight away. Look at exposing your child to their irrational fear in small steps. For instance, if it is a fear of clowns start with pictures of clowns first before you send them away to live with the circus for a couple of months. Our children trust us. Pushing children too hard with facing their deepest, darkest fears, no matter how irrational they are, is a bit mean to say the least.
  •  Secondly, do not remove what is making them scared before they can calm down. To use the clown example again, if you were to watch a video of a clown but then swiftly turn it off as soon as your child shows signs of distress then you have only reinforced their fear. Their last memory of seeing a clown will be a distressing one and you will have sent the message to them that they can’t handle clowns. Instead, sit with your child, provide measured reassurance, coach them in some basic self-soothing like deep breaths or looking at the colours on the clown and wait until they are calm before moving on.
  •  Thirdly, be aware of unhelpful “security measures” that your child may be using to avoid really facing their fear. For instance, if your child is scared of storms and you allow them to hide in the walk-in wardrobe when it starts to thunder what message are you really sending your child? This is telling them that when it storms they need to hide because the storm is bad, you are not safe and remember child – you are scared of storms. Instead, provide measured, appropriate self-soothing strategies and do not throw yourself into a panic accommodating their irrational behavior.
  •  Lastly, not all avoidance is bad. Avoidance of irrational things is. Fears such as being physically apart from mummy or daddy, going to bed at night, or rainy days are disruptive to a regular, happy childhood. Fears of standing up in front of crowds, large, scary dogs, or horror movies can be pretty reasonable.

As is a fear of jumping out of a plane.