Many teens who experience anxiety may also have a co-occurring diagnosis, such as specific phobia. Specific phobia is common among females and younger children, and studies identify approximately 5% of those under 18 years old suffer from a specific phobia1. Common phobias include fear of injections and going to the doctor/dentist. Phobias are often connected to feeling a lack of control and fear of uncertainty or the unknown. Specific phobias can come on abruptly, and many times connect to a negative experience. A teen experiencing specific phobia will often feel paralyzed in that moment, and it can be incredibly debilitating in basic activities, such as a medical check-up. While it is often important to work with a therapist around these fears, there are also steps that can be taken at home to support and prepare your teen.
Validate and Support—Have a conversation exploring this fear with your teen. Normalize that many people have similar fears, and validate that it must be so scary to feel out of control. Because these fears are so common, it is easy to brush them off or push your teen to work through it. Understand that a true specific phobia is not easily worked through, and it’s not as simple as, “just do it” or “get over it.” Your validation and taking the time to hear your teen’s fear is invaluable. And, sometimes, the support may look like you simply sitting with your teen and physically being there, not trying to help him/her understand why this procedure needs to occur.
Worst-Case Scenario—Help your teen to identify what the worst-case scenario might be, and support your teen in creating a plan for that happening. For example, the worst-case scenario for drawing blood might be that it hurts badly, and it takes a few attempts to get it. Work with your teen to plan how he/she can work through that situation, and ask what you can do to help in that moment. We are often so fearful of the worst-case scenario that we avoid the situation altogether. By identifying the worst-case scenario and helping your teen plan for it, you will empower your teen. This in itself will naturally begin to decrease the anxiety. It is also worth mentioning to your teen that most often the worst-case scenario doesn’t happen, so the plan exists as a back-up, but he/she likely won’t need it.
Make a Proactive Visit—Whether it’s the doctor or the dentist, take your teen to visit the office prior to any procedure or injection occurring. Again, much of the fear is around the unknown and lack of control, so if we can empower teens to gain control over the environment it will help to decrease their anxiety. Allow them to see the environment, get accustomed to the sounds, smells, people, and possibly even talk to someone who can explain what to expect. Prior to visiting, encourage your teen to write down any questions he/she might have if he/she is able to talk with a staff member.
Coping Skills—Help your teen identify what self-soothing activities he/she can do prior to the visit or while at the appointment to decrease his/her anxiety. Coping skills that teens often find helpful are deep breathing, visualization, or listening to music. If your teen enjoys music, encourage him/her to put together a playlist of calming music, which will again empower your teen to gain control over a fearful situation.
Just remember that no matter which tool is helpful, the most important thing is patience and validation. Trying to convince your teen that it will “be okay” or give the reasons they need to do it will not soothe the intense fear associated with a clinical phobia. The more understood and in control they feel, the more likely they are to take small steps forward.
Source(s): 1. Merckelbach, H., Muris, P., & Schmidt, H. (1998) The structure of specific phobia symptoms among children and adolescents. Behaviour Research and Therapy (37), 863-868.
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Would you like additional guidance in this area? Teen Therapy Center provides individual teen therapy, family therapy, group therapy, parent support counseling, and in-home teen and family coaching 7 days a week, including afternoons, evenings, and weekends. For more information, contact us at 408.389.3538.