Helping kids stare fear in the face

Virginia Tech's Child Study Center, part of the College of Science, is working to arm children with ways to conquer their fears — and watching to see how much of an impact their parents' help makes.

    A bee on a sunflower (top) and a snake in water (bottom)
"Approximately 5 percent of children experience some type of phobia," said Thomas Ollendick, University Distinguished Professor in the Department of Psychology and lead investigator for the study.

The types of phobias children have are almost endless, but the more common ones include fears of bees, dogs, spiders, heights, storms, costumed characters, dark, and enclosed places, Ollendick said.

"For many children, phobias result in considerable school difficulties, social and personal problems, and interference in their everyday functioning," he said.

The four-year, National Institute of Mental Health-funded study is a follow up to a similar study Ollendick and his research team recently carried out in Virginia and Sweden. That study focused on treating children with phobias but did not include their parents in the treatment.

Results of the study showed about 60 percent of the children were phobia-free immediately following treatment and about 75 percent were phobia-free one year after treatment.

"Our expectation is that having parents involved in their children's treatment will be even more effective and that the treatment will show longer-lasting effects," Ollendick says. "Our efforts are aimed at providing both the children and their parents a set of skills that can be used and reinforced long after the treatment ends."

The treatment involves intensive one-session cognitive behavioral therapy, which lasts for approximately three hours.

    A child (left) pets a dog (center) while a parent watches (right)
During this treatment, children are taught new ways of interacting with the phobic object or situation and different ways of thinking about what will happen to them when in the presence of the phobic object or situation. In addition, the parents are taught a set of skills to help them deal with their children's fears.

In the new study, children and their families will be assigned randomly to the child-only treatment or to the new child-plus-parent treatment. The randomization procedure is necessary to establish the scientific value of the treatments.

    A spider on a patients hands
"We are giving kids and their parents the skills and strategies to face their fears head on," Ollendick says. "This is the first time anyone has studied the effectiveness of actively including parents in the treatment of specific phobias in their children. For those who are interested, it is a chance to be involved in a novel treatment approach."

In order to be considered for the project, children must be between the ages of 7 and 12, have a specific phobia, and be able to travel to Blacksburg, Va., for the treatment program.

Participants who qualify for the study will receive $250 per family for their involvement in the various assessments that are needed to evaluate how well the treatments work. The treatment itself is free and confidential. The study will be conducted over the next four years and 154 children and their families are needed.

  • For more information on this topic, contact Ali Hoffman at hoffmana@vt.edu or (540) 231-8276.

Learn more

    A child and a dog

Phobias are strong, irrational fears of specific objects, such as a dog or other animal.

Podcast:

"Fears, Phobias, Rituals, and Traumas: A Lifetime Journey"
(Length 28:39)

Related articles

Psychology

    Thomas Ollendick

Thomas Ollendick has gained an international reputation in clinical psychology and is considered to be one of the world's foremost researchers of children's anxieties and fears.

Another approach

Virtual reality therapy is also used to treat phobic and anxiety disorders.

The advantages of virtual reality therapy include

  • therapy can be conducted in the therapist's office;
  • greater control over the phobic stimuli; and
  • less exposure of the client to possible harm or embarrassment.

Spotlight Archive

Look through previous Spotlight stories

Access the archives