When a Fearful Child Becomes a Tyrant

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Debilitating fear can become like a tyrant, not just for the person experiencing the fear, but also for other members of their family. Escaping the tyranny and helping a child to face and eventually overcome a debilitating fear requires something akin to “tough love”.

Most of us struggle with fears of one kind or another. Most of the time, we either learn how to live with those fears or learn to overcome them to a manageable extent, so they don’t wreak too much havoc in our lives. But sometimes a person’s fear can be of a paralyzing nature, and when such a thing happens, living with that fear is much like living with a tyrant — a demanding overlord that seeks to influence one’s every action (see “When Fear Paralyzes”). Moreover, when someone in a family is in the grip of a debilitating fear, it’s not uncommon for other members of the family to feel like their lives are tyrannically governed too. And when, by way of well meaning attempts to deal benignly with the person who has the fear, others inadvertently “enable” that fear to persist or even escalate, the sense of living under tyranny becomes even greater.

Over the years I’ve encountered hundreds examples of children who struggled with various fears and anxieties during their formative years. Many children appear to go through stages where various fears emerge or predominate, so struggling with fears is in many ways a normal part of development. But sometimes children become locked in the grip of an extreme and paralyzing fear, and when they do they can become virtual tyrants in their own home. For example, a child going through a stage of fearing flying insects (and who therefore fears to venture outdoors during the “buggy season”) might end up ruining a planned picnic in the park for the whole family. A child afraid of animals might put a real damper on a planned outing to the circus. A child afraid of the rides might make a day at the amusement park a nightmare experience for the rest of the family, especially supervisors, because of their tantrums and avoidance behaviors. When fears paralyze, just about everyone connected to the person with the fear is affected, and life becomes difficult for all. It’s analogous to what happens in families where one member is in the grip of an addiction and that addiction ends up governing the lives of everyone else in the family to some degree (this is the true meaning of the term “codependency”).

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There’s some really good news in the fact that fears and anxieties are among the most treatable psychological problems out there. There are several “tried and true” approaches, all displaying good success rates. A common aspect to the most successful approaches is exposure. To overcome a fear, you must eventually face it head on, whether it’s a fear that’s hard to identify specifically (which is what anxiety is all about) or a fear of a particular thing or situation (in which case, we commonly apply the label phobia). Repeatedly exposing yourself to the very thing you usually try to avoid and allowing yourself to experience the fact that the dreadful consequences you might have imagined occurring failed to occur is the best way of reducing or even eventually eliminating the fear response. Now getting someone to face what they’d rather avoid is challenging, so generally, this is done “systematically,” using an approach that incrementally brings a person closer to the thing they fear the most, and allowing them at each small, approximating step to realize that they’re safe, thus gradually “desensitizing” them to fear evoking situations.

There are other exposure methods that use a more immediate and intense approach, such as intense over exposure techniques like “immersion” and “flooding”. While adults might have the resources to handle these more hard hitting approaches, children are susceptible to being even further traumatized by them, thus only increasing their overall fearfulness. It’s natural for any child to resist any efforts at exposure, especially at first, which is why it’s so important to start small and to reinforce their mastery of every small step along the way. Perhaps the trickiest part of helping the child overcome their fears is to deal also with the ways other family members have come to inadvertently “enable” the fear bound child to avoid the things they have long found unpleasant. Helping the child both to face and eventually to overcome a debilitating fear requires something akin to “tough love,” whereby you always make it clear how much you care but you’re also careful not to reinforce the notions that there really is something to fear or that the best way to feel safe is to avoid the situation the child fears. And that’s exactly what happens when folks end up catering to the fearful child’s whims.

Children who overcome their fears and phobias with proper treatment often receive other positive dividends. As they increasingly face situations they’re prone to avoid without the paralysis they once experienced, they typically gain both a sense of mastery and self-efficacy. They don’t just become more calm as fears subside, they become more confident as well. They also learn a lot about where the locus of control lies in their lives. No longer controlled by their fears, they feel more in charge of their own destiny. Other family members experience similar, positive benefits. No longer controlled by the fears that once plagued the child, they’re freed from the grip of tyranny.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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