Behavior Modification That Works
Snakes, spiders, the dark, and thunderstorms all seem to have magical powers to frighten children and elicit shrieks, shivers, and meltdowns. If you’re like me, at least one of your kids has developed a fear of something along the way, and finding a way to help them overcome the fear is not always easy. Thankfully enough years of parenting four children has given me experiences that have allowed me to find ways to help calm their fears and worries and grow to be stronger, braver people. One of the most effective ways of helping them cope with their fears is with behavior modification, specifically systematic desensitization.
Behavior Modification and Systematic Desensitization
It’s a mouthful, right? Behind this string of psychology infused words is a practice that you might be doing already, but you didn’t know had such a fancy name. Basically, behavior modification is the process of modifying behaviors through small steps of change and influence to change undesirable behaviors into positive, desired behaviors. The use of systematic desensitization is just one technique of behavior modification.
Systematic desensitization is the process of breaking down a feared activity or feared situation into smaller, more manageable steps. Depending on the severity of the fear, it can start out with as small of a step as necessary to allow the child to make progress without sending them the message that they aren’t brave enough to reach the end goal.
Perhaps the best way to describe what systematic desensitization is would be to tell you about my son and the dreaded dentist. I admit upfront that I played a negative role in his development of his distrust for the dentist’s office. Before he was even two, I had a dental procedure done and actually ended up biting through my tongue, which left me unable to speak clearly for a few days and I was in some pain. Unfortunately, my son was just weeks away from his check-up, and soaked it all in that dentists equated to slurring speech and mouths that were almost too sore for bedtime kisses.
We arrived at the office for his appointment and getting him in the chair was easy, but getting him to open his mouth was impossible. I discreetly explained to the hygienist why my son was apprehensive (I didn’t do it within his ear shot because I didn’t want to validate his fear for him).
The dental hygienist (a wonderful woman!) used a systematic desensitization approach. That day’s visit was all just about checking out the chair, the mirrors, and the cool toothbrushes she had on her counter. No one touched my son’s teeth, but he did give them a big smile at the end of the visit. We waited two months and took him back in where we went through several of the same steps of looking at the equipment and smiling for the hygienist, and moved to letting her brush his teeth. By the third visit we were at a full fledge little guy dental cleaning. Yes – it took more efforts than just one visit, but it’s not like I could just allow him to refuse to see the dentist forever, and holding him in the chair and all but forcing him to cooperate would have only reinforced his fears and distrust. This clip isn’t from my dental office, but does show the same approach being used elsewhere.
Help Your Child Overcome Fears
- For fear of bugs, snakes, and other creatures, start by stories involving them, picture books, and board games. Gradually move to seeing one in person, perhaps at the pet store or other place where the creature won’t be able to touch your child.
- For fear of the dark use some comforting items and gradually decrease the amount of light present. In our nursery we used to have a dimmer switch on the light so that we could adjust it according to the needs of our different children. Nightlights aren’t the only option. Gradually increase moments that your child spends in darker environments – reading at bedtime by soft light, snuggling with you just by the light of sky coming through the windows – create comforting feelings where the dark is not a scary factor.
- Fear of thunderstorms, tornadoes, and other weather extremes is common, but can be helped by highlighting the smaller incidences. When it rains, talk about the great things that rain can do, and how about sometimes there is thunder and sometimes there is not. Read books about storms that help explain to kids what thunder is. Calmly go over building rules for tornado safety – but don’t wait until the stress of the storm is already occurring.
Some Don’ts for Your Child’s Fears
- If your child expresses an extreme fear, don’t say, “It’s OK” as they cry in your arms. You are telling them that their fear is warranted. You can acknowledge their fear and then make attempts to gradually make progress.
- Don’t force your child to do something they fear – it will only increase their anxiety. This is known as “flooding” and can cause greater harm than good.
- Don’t tease your child about their fears as it will just increase the stress about the specific activity or object.
- Don’t give up. Helping our kids keep moving forward is one of the best things we can do for them. Small steps might take longer, but they still lead to the same destination, and usually result in happier, more confident children.