Fear of Clowns

I’m sure you’ve seen it: a child cringing and screaming at the sight of Ronald McDonald, Krusty the Clown, Circus Charlie or another clown. Whether the youngster met the clown in person or just saw him or her on television, the reaction is the same: intense dislike, panic, even pure horror. It makes one wonder: how can a mascot designed to bring on fun and silliness end up being a villain?

The fear of clowns is called coulrophobia. This phobia is more common than most think, affecting both adults and children across different cultures. In most cases, coulrophobia is a mild and temporary phobia, one that starts in early childhood and is naturally outgrown by puberty. But extreme cases also exist, with sufferers experiencing severe stress by the mere thought of clowns.

Why Would Kids be Afraid of Clowns?
Most of us recognize that clowns are just ordinary people dressed up in heavy make-up, colorful wigs and baggy clothes. We can also associate their presence with entertainment, magic tricks and comic relief. However, kids – especially really young children – can’t yet make those conclusions.

For them, clowns are strange-looking creatures who interact with them in a way that they are not used to. It’s only natural for children to be wary and fearful of what they don’t understand — it’s part of a person’s natural instinct. Also, consider that kids often meet clowns in loud and confusing settings, such as at a party, a show or a carnival. The context can also make clowns feel very intimidating to young children.

Media images may also play a role in the “villain-ization” of clowns. Television shows and movies today often poke fun at coulrophobia; take Bart’s line of “Can’t sleep, clown will eat me,” in an episode of the The Simpsons, or Sam Winchester’s “Planes crash… and apparently clowns kill,” in the horror series Supernatural. The late Heath Ledger also gave a convincing portrayal of a psychopath clown as The Joker in the movie Batman: Dark Knight. These kinds of images only contribute to feelings of upset and fear that vulnerable children may have.

What can Parents Do?
Fear of clowns that developed spontaneously (that is, was not caused by a traumatic experience involving clowns) will eventually go away on its own. However, clowns are hard to avoid in a child’s life – they show up on T.V., in movies, at shopping malls, at a birthday parties and many other places that children frequent. If a child’s fear is overwhelming to the point where the child doesn’t want to go out or to the point that the child will have a full blown panic attack upon seeing a clown, then professional help is in order. Child psychologists can help a child recover from coulrophobia.

If the fear is annoying but not that strong, then home treatment may suffice; try Bach Flower Remedies like Mimulus for phobias and Rock Rose for panic attacks – 2 drops of each given 4 times a day over a number of months can gently melt fear out of the system. Also, taking the Bach preparation Rescue Remedy along on outings is a useful strategy. Rescue Remedy can quickly calm a child and turn off a panic attack or tantrum – 4 drops in a small amount of liquid, given every couple of minutes usually calms the child very quickly. It also comes in spray form so that it can be sprayed into the child’s mouth (or even right on his or her arms).  Teaching the child EFT (emotional freedom technique) or doing EFT on the child can also cure the clown issue in many children. Check out online information on EFT as well as videos showing the treatment of children with phobias through EFT.

Fear of clowns that persist until adulthood, or fear that causes significant stress in a child should be referred to a mental health professional.

Fear of Flying

Picture this: you and your family are planning a beautiful vacation. Everything is ready to go except that there is one tiny problem: Yourchild is afraid of flying – so terrified, in fact, that she doesn’t want to come on this trip. Do you change your travel destination, cancel the trip or  force her onto the plane? Or is there a way to help her get over her fear?

The good news is that fear of flying ( aerophobia) – a common phenomenon among both children and adults – responds well to various interventions. The following are some tips on how parents can help a child who is afraid to fly:

Acknowledge, Accept and Treat the Fear
Fear of flying is understandable – after all, the airplane is hanging in the sky! It seems like it could easily fall down. And, to top it off, planes do crash and people do die fiery deaths – so fear of flying has to be respected. Let your child know that while you understand and respect her fear, it IS possible to feel differently and, in fact, you yourself are not afraid. Most likely, you have flown more often than your child. Let your child know that because you have experienced the comfort and safety of flying, you actually enjoy being on a plane. You count on arriving to your destination safely, just like you do when you’re driving. Inform your child that flying in a plane is statistically safer than being in a moving car. After giving this information, still accept the child’s fear by saying something like, “but sometimes we can’t help the scary feelings inside even when we know the facts.” Tell the child that there are different things that can make the scary feelings calm down and you are going to help those scary feelings.

Calming Scary Feelings
If your child’s fear is intense, take her to a mental health professional who treats phobias. Often CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) will be helpful. Other treatments that are used quite successfully for phobias in general and fear of flying in particular are EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) and EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique). If you can’t find a therapist who practices EFT, or if the fear is not overwhelming, you can easily learn EFT yourself and teach it to your child. There are books on EFT and lots of web resources. In addition, you might experiment with a product called Rescue Remedy – a fear-busting Bach Flower Remedy that is available on-line and in health food stores around the world. Rescue Remedy, safe for babies, children and teens, can help calm anxious and panicky feelings. Also ask your child to imagine the whole  flight starting with take-off, flying and landing safely. The child should imagine this as often as possible, with and without simultaneous tapping.  Keep in mind that teenagers and adults with intense fear of flying may  also be able to take anti-anxiety medication to help with the actual flight – talk to your child’s doctor about this particularly if self-help and professional help have failed to reduce the fear to a manageable level.

Be Prepared
In anticipation of your child’s anxiety during the flight, it might be best to come prepared with plenty of distractions. Music is traditionally believed to be soothing for a child; taking your mp3 player along can help. Similarly, drawing or coloring can be soothing and distracting, so make sure you pack some books, crayons and pencils. For older kids consider “Zentangle” – meditative doodling (you can find more information online). Cards, board games and movies you both can watch through a portable DVD player or laptop would also be great help. Check with the airline before take off to see whether children’s programming is provided on the plane’s movie and T.V. screen, to save having to bring everything along yourself.

Bring Security Objects
Having something familiar around during a flight can help ease a child’s emotions about flying. Bring a favorite toy, pillow or blanket along for the ride. Older kids can bring photos.

Bibliotherapy
Get a picture book out of the library that explains what pilots and stewardesses do. For older kids, take out books on flying, flying phobias, airplanes and so on, and also access online resources on all aspects of flight and fear. You want to be able to show your child that many people work on planes all day long, flying all the time. This can help bring home the safe nature of this form of travel. For airline professionals, being in the air does not occur once a year on summer vacations, but every day as part of a regular job.

Manage Your Own Fear
Lastly, make sure that you present your child with a calm and reassuring face! Kids take their cue from their parents and other adults. If you are also fearful in the sky, your child may not be able to draw on your reserve of calm energy. Use the interventions above (see “calming scary feelings”) to help yourself overcome your own fears of flying!

Fear of Thunder, Lightning, and Other Weather Conditions

Storms can be frightening for children and adults alike. A flash of electricity lighting up the night time sky, a rumble of thunder followed by a crashing boom can send shivers up anyone’s back! Some children are more afraid of severe weather conditions than others, but parents need to know how to help any child feel more comfortable in the face of howling winds, noisy storms, torrential downpours and all the other frightening weather events that inevitably occur in our world.

To help your child be more comfortable during severe weather events, consider the following tips:

Make it Fun
Many adults associate storms with fond childhood memories. You can help your child do the same by starting “traditions” of story-telling or game-playing during storms. Since everyone is stuck inside anyway, it’s a great opportunity for family time.  Sipping cocoa, munching munchies, listening to music, cuddling up with a good book or movie – cozy activities can create cozy feelings toward rough weather condition.

If it’s already bedtime and your child is under the covers, you can still help her associate storms with comfort and positive feelings. A young child might appreciate the companionship of a special plush toy (or the real family pet). An older one might enjoy a flashlight and a good book to read under the covers – a special activity reserved for stormy nights. Or, you might help the child imagine that there is a noisy celebration of fireworks outside. Or, you can take turns making up explanations for the noise with your child as a fun and silly game – for instance, you suggest that the sky giants are bowling and your child suggests that the angels are go-carting and you suggest that the clouds are arguing and so on and so forth. Or, you can invite everyone into your bed so they can all fall asleep together. Most storms don’t last very long, so hopefully everyone will soon return to their own beds!

If your child is too frightened and upset to enjoy the fun, consider learning and then treating him or her with Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT). This very simple self-help tapping technique can be used WHILE the child is overwhelmed with panic to help turn off the fight-or-flight response. Learn about EFT online or from one of the many books on the subject, or consult a mental health practitioner who uses and teaches the technique.  EFT can often reduce intense feelings of fear in just a few minutes.

Consider Rescue Remedy and Bach Flower Remedies
Another resource is Rescue Remedy – a harmless, water-based form of vibrational “medicine” that quickly calms agitation and fear. Give your child 4 drops in a small amount of water, encouraging him to sip it every few minutes until he feels better. Rescue Remedy also comes in spray form and can be sprayed directly into the child’s mouth.

The Bach Flower Remedies Mimulus and Rock Rose can be prepared together in one mixing bottle (see instructions on this site and elsewhere online and in books, or consult a Bach Flower Practitioner for assistance). Giving this mixture to the child several times a day for an extended period (i.e. many months) can help prevent the fear of storms from occurring in the future.

Explain the Science
Understanding the science of storms can help reduce the child’s fear. Get the information you need about the cause of severe weather conditions and give it over in an age-appropriate way to your child. Be sure to include information about how to stay safe in a storm.

Teach Self-Soothing Skills
Teach your child simple but effective ways of calming feelings of fear. Self-talk is a good tool for this purpose: teach your child to tell him or herself, “the storm will be over very soon and everything will be back to normal” or “it’s noisy outside but I’m safe here inside.”  You can also teach the child how to calm the fight-or-flight chemistry by breathing very slowly. Your child’s fear is fueled by his or her negative imagination (picturing worst case scenarios). Teach the child to use positive imagination instead (i.e. picturing how nice and fresh everything will look after the storm).

Professional Help
If self-help techniques do not sufficiently help your child through storms, do take him or her to a mental health professional. Fears and phobias produce a lot of unnecessary anguish and suffering – they are usually quickly and easily resolved with a short course of professional treatment.

Fear of Doctors or Dentists

Some babies, kids and teens have fears of medical professionals. This is highly inconvenient because all people need to see doctors and dentists at least occasionally. Moreover, some people require acute medical or dental attention – being terrified of the helping professional only adds stress to the already intense stress of injury or illness.

If your child has a fear of doctors or dentists, consider the following tips:

Babies are Smarter Than They Look
A baby often figures out rather quickly that the doctor gives – ouch – needles. If your baby develops “attitude” about doctor’s visits, it means that he or she is smart. Even though the doctor smiles and seems so friendly, he or she pokes and prods and pricks during those first-year visits. You can validate your baby’s feelings by saying things like, “I know you don’t like the doctor. It isn’t fun to get that needle!” Even if your baby doesn’t understand your speech, your validation of his or her experience is good practice for the validation that you’ll need to be doing for many years to come. Moreover, the baby can feel your sympathy and understanding even if he doesn’t understand your words. This helps establish a strong parent-child bond that builds trust while also helps to soothe and calm your baby. Once the doctor’s visits become more pleasant, the baby will usually develop a warm relationship with the doctor. In other words, in most cases, the problem will go away by itself within some months or, in more difficult cases, in a couple of years. Just wait it out. Alternatively, it may help a little if you can pair a doctor’s visit with a treat or privilege of some kind. Don’t bribe the child; simply give the child a treat or privilege when you leave the doctor’s office. This can help the child associate the doctor with pleasure and this can reduce his upset, despite the pain.

Persistent Fear Requires Intervention
If your baby doesn’t grow out of the fear of a white coat or the smell of the doctor’s office by toddlerhood, you’ll definitely want to help him along. Young kids can benefit from “bibliotherapy” – the use of picture books to help reduce anxiety. Your local library may have a selection of picture books for young children that focus on what exactly happens at a medical or dental office. Reading such books can help prepare and calm the youngster before a visit for a check-up or treatment. Older children – those beyond the picture-book stage of life – may benefit from specific stress-reduction strategies. If you know some, teach them to your child or teen. If you don’t, one or two visits to a mental health professional may be all that your child needs in order to learn some coping tools for fear. If the child has a true phobia, full treatment can take a number of weeks or even some months. One thing that you might teach a child is how to focus on his breath while the doctor or dentist performs an examination. Tell your child to pay attention to the breath going in and out of his nostrils, or pay attention to his chest rising and falling as he breathes. Alternatively, teach the child to “daydream” effectively – to use visualization to take himself to a safe, fun place while the doctor is performing his examination. A different kind of tool is “mindfulness meditation.” In this technique you teach your child to name his thoughts and feelings and physical sensations as they are occurring during the examination or treatment. For instance, the child might say (silently), “scared, nervous, don’t like this, don’t want to be here, cold, uncomfortable, want to go home, relaxed, sore, sad, upset, mad, happy to be going home now,” and so on, throughout the medical or dental visit. Even though the child is naming negative thoughts and feelings, he will actually feel more in-control and calmer by doing this exercise. Try it yourself first to see how it feels. Another tool that helps many children and teens is EFT – emotional freedom technique. You can learn about this self-help tool online. It is excellent for removing or minimizing feelings of fear.

Try Bach Flower Therapy
On the day of the medical visit, and right beforehand, try giving your child Rescue Remedy. This pre-mixed Bach Flower Remedy is available at health food stores and on-line. Rescue Remedy helps to calm feelings of overwhelming fear and panic and can be taken right before, during and right after a very frightening experience. It comes in liquid (drop 4 drops in water or any other beverage) as well as spray and candy form. In order to help ease the fearful tendency out of the child and thereby prevent on-going fear of medical professionals, use Bach Flowers regularly for some months. Try the remedies Mimulus (for fears) and Rock Rose (for panic). You can speak to a Bach Flower Therapist to get a specially designed formulation for your child or you can look up the remedy descriptions online and select up to 7 remedies to put all together in one dropper bottle. There are online resources to learn how to prepare the remedies for use.

Seek Professional Help
If you’ve tried everything and your child is still afraid of medical or dental professionals, enlist the help of a professional therapist. Do this as soon as possible to make healing easier and to save your child many years of unnecessary pain and distress.

Fear of Bugs

Many children and teens have a fear of bugs. Some kids are afraid of anything “creepy crawly” while others are afraid of specific insects such as spiders or bees and wasps. It is very inconvenient to have a serious fear of bugs because – let’s face it – bugs are everywhere. It will be impossible for a person to completely avoid encountering bugs. Moreover, bugs are particularly likely to show up in places that kids are likely to go, like day camps, sleepover camps, beaches, picnic areas, cottage country and even local parks. In fact, a child with a bug phobia can be miserable when he or she simply has to go outdoors. Those who have fears of spiders or other household bugs don’t feel safe even INSIDE their houses.

If your child has a fear of bugs, consider the following tips:

Your Child Needs Help in Overcoming Fear
It can be very annoying for parents and other family members to have to deal with a child who is afraid of bugs. This child may ruin family outings with his or her terror. Or he or she may make impossible demands in order to be protected from bugs (for example, asking the family to keep all the doors and windows shut on a hot day so that no bug will fly into the house). However, reprimanding a fearful child DOES NOT help! In fact, it hurts the child by showing clear lack of understanding and compassion. Your child has no control over his or her fear. It is something biological – an inborn tendency. Some people have fears and some people just don’t. The good news is that even someone who is born with a fearful tendency can be helped. Sometimes the parent can help the child and sometimes the child will need professional help in order to overcome a debilitating fear. Toddlers and pre-schoolers often outgrow many fears on their own, however older children and teens are unlikely to outgrow their fear. Without your help, they might suffer a lifetime (or until they’re old enough to seek their own help!).

So what can you do to help your child?

Introduce Your Youngster to EFT
EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) is a powerful accupressure-based, self-help tool. Parents can learn it and use it on their young kids and older kids and teens can learn it and use it on themselves. There are also therapists world-wide who have trained in EFT so that they can help their clients with it. This simple technique that involves using one’s own fingers to tap lightly on certain parts of the body, can sometimes completely remove fear of bugs in just one or two sessions. Sometimes, it will take longer – it all depends on the child. There is a great deal of information about EFT on-line and there are books that can be purchased that explain exactly how to do the treatment.

Try Bach Flower Remedies
Whether or not you experiment with EFT, you can offer your youngster Bach Flower Remedies. For fear of bugs, Mimulus and Rock Rose are likely to be helpful. Give your child two drops of each in liquid, four times a day until the fear is no longer present. If your child is going to a bug-filled location, give him or her Rescue Remedy (a special Bach Flower Mixture available in health food stores) to take along. Rescue Remedy may help stop panic attacks and intensely fearful reactions.

Look at a Fear and Phobia Self-Help Manual
There are self-help manuals that use CBT (cognitive-behavioral therapy) strategies for reducing fears and phobias. You may be able to give such a manual to a teenager to look through. For a younger child, you can work through such a manual together. Professional therapists often use a similar approach for helping people overcome their fears.

Experiment with Desensitization by Watching Bug Videos
Sometimes a child is helped by learning about and seeing bugs in controlled situations. Watching bug-videos on-line is safer than looking at a bug close-up! The child can see the bug up close (on the screen), learn about its habits and lifecyle, and even learn how to protect himself from the bug. There’s plenty of information online about how to treat bug bites and bee stings and just knowing what to do can help reduce some of the fear.

Give Your Child Coping Tools
Teach your child what to do when confronted with a bug. For instance, if the bug is in your house, instruct the child to CALMLY ask someone to help remove it. You want your child to refrain from engaging in hysterical tantrums. If possible, teach your child how to remove the bug him or herself. Don’t do this if your child actually experiences intense panic. However, if the child is afraid of bugs, it can be empowering to know what to do about them in case others aren’t around to provide a rescue. You can also teach your child to say certain calming statements. You can design these with the child so that the child is in agreement that the statements are calming. For instance, upon seeing a worm, a fearful child might be taught to say “It is a worm. It is a tiny, tiny worm. It will not hurt me.” If a frightened child sees a bee in the room, he might say, “It is a bee. It is a tiny bee that wants to get out of the house. It doesn’t want to hurt me.” If a scared child sees a cockroach, he can say, “It is a cockroach. It is an ugly cockroach that is very tiny. It will not hurt me.” Making such statements out loud can help the child feel calmer. Devise action-plans with your child. What do you want the child to do when he or she sees a bug? Talk about this with the child and ask the child to imagine actually taking those steps. Being prepared helps.

Consult a Professional
If these tips do not sufficiently reduce  your child’s fear, do consider arranging a consultation with a mental health professional like a child psychologist.

Fear of Animals

Most children love the zoo, but there are some children who virtually tremble at the sight of animals. In most cases, a child’s fear of animals is naturally outgrown. But there are also cases where fears persist into the teenage and adult years, and even become lifelong phobias.

How can parents help their children manage or overcome fears of animals or fear of a particular animal?

Accept the Child’s Fear and Empathize
It’s important that parents try to see animals from their kids’ eyes. A Labrador puppy may not look intimidating from an adult’s point of view, but the pet can easily be the height of a 2 or 3 year old. A domesticated cat may rarely bare her claws — but kids can still feel fear about how sharp they look.  And farm animals are usually a bit more frightening – just think of a chicken suddenly flying towards you. Let your child know that his or her fear is understandable: “Yes, horses are really big! Even though I’m sure they’re pretty friendly, they certainly look scary, ” or “I see you’re scared of the puppy. That’s O.K. You don’t know him yet so you’re right to be a little wary. Let’s get to know him better and see if we can trust him.”

Show a Calm and Relaxed Disposition among Animals
Young kids often take their cues from the adults around them, so model how to properly approach and pet an animal. Smile and act relaxed. Whatever you do, don’t fool around and pretend that you are being attacked. It may be funny to you, but it’s likely not amusing to your terrified boy or girl.

Visit a Vet, an Animal Shelter or a Pet Store
One way you can lessen a child’s fear of animals is to get them into a setting where interacting with animals is just part of the day. Let them interview your local vet, who may be invited to provide interesting animal trivia that usually gets little kids hooked. You can also take them to an animal shelter or a pet store and explain to them that animals do need a loving home too. If they can see animals as creatures that need care and support just like they do, they might feel a little less intimidated by the little critters.

Consider Self-Help Treatments for Fear and Phobias
If the child is panicky around animals, give him or her Rescue Remedy when visiting zoos or people who have pets. Rescue Remedy is a Bach Flower mixture available in health food stores and online. To help the child eventually get over the fear, you can use other remedies in the Bach system such as Mimulus for phobias and Rock Rose for panic. In this case, give the child these remedies four times daily until he or she no longer expresses fear of animals.

Also, consider teaching your child EFT (emotional freedom technique) – a form of accupressure that can often heal fears and phobias. More information on EFT can be found online and throughout this site.

Aim for Gradual Desensitization
If your child is really upset at the sight of animals, then go slowly and patiently.  For example, bring home some library books about the animal or animals that your child fears. There are beautiful picture books that teach everything there is to know about pets and farm animals, explaining the parts of the animal’s body, the food the animal eats and the way it typically behaves. Next, show some educational films on the same kinds of material – i.e. a film about cats or dogs or horses or zoo animals. Next, take them to a pet store where the animals are contained in locked cages. Eventually, try a small section of a local zoo.  Then, take your child to LOOK AT a petting farm – don’t make the child participate by walking among the animals and actually touching them.  Instead, have the child watch other children having fun with the animals. Eventually, you might be able to assist your child within the petting zoo itself (not on the first visit, but maybe after several such visits). You might be able to bring some goldfish into your home after awhile.  Invite a friend to bring a puppy on a leash to your house and let your child observe the animal without having to be close to it. Only when the child is comfortable and wants to get closer should you help the youngster come near the pet while it is still on the leash. Eventually see if you can help the child to touch the dog while you are holding the animal –  you can hold a puppy in your arms and get tyour child to touch the tail today, the body tomorrow, and who knows, perhaps the head in a few weeks. After the child gets to know the puppy, you might let the animal walk about without the leash and just let the child watch (possibly while sitting in your lap!). Soon, the child will want to walk freely where the dog is and eventually, if all goes well, play happily with the dog like other kids do.

Consider Professional Help
If your child is not responding to your interventions and is suffering from fear of animals that impedes with his or her daily life (i.e. child is afraid to go to school or other places), then consult a child psychologist. Mental health professionals can help people of all ages overcome their fears and live a more relaxed and happy life!

Over and Over Again

When a child or teen repeats actions for no obvious reason, there is often a reason! In fact, there are many reasons why young people might repeat movements or actions. Let’s look at the more common ones.

  • Pervasive Developmental Disorders (PPD): Some mental health disorders like autism, Asperger’s Disorder and PPDNOS (pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified) may have repetitive behaviors as part of their symptom picture. For instance, there may be rocking or rhythmic movements, hand flapping or twirling. Such behaviors in and of themselves do not indicate the presence of a pervasive developmental disorder – many other symptoms must be present for a diagnosis to be made. Behavioral Therapy may help reduce these kinds of repetitive behaviors.
  • Simple Nervous Habits. Some children kick their legs back and forth when seated or rock back and forth, or twirl their hair or even crack their knuckles.  This sort of repetitive behavior may just be a discharge of “nervous energy.” Unless these behaviors interfere with functioning or cause distress, there is no need to treat them. However, some people find that giving their children Bach Flower Remedies (try “Agrimony”) may help reduce nervous habits. Consult a Bach Flower Practitioner for an individually designed remedy most appropriate for your child’s needs.
  • Tourettes Syndrome. Tic disorders are, by definition, repetitive behaviors. SImple Tic Disorders such as Transient Tic Disorder (common in 7 – 9 year old children) may consist of one repetitive behavior such as blinking or twitching a shoulder or clearing the throat. In simple Tic disorders, the particular behavior may change from time to time, or, there may be more than one movement or sound involved. These sorts of tics usually disappear on their own within a year or so, although in some children they can last years or right into adulthood. In Tourette’s Syndrome, the child has BOTH repetitive movement and repetitive vocalization occuring, and there can be more than one of each kind. Bach Flower Remedies have helped people with Tic Disorders. There are also medications that your doctor can presecribe. In addition, there are behavioral therapies that can help bring tics under control.
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)When a child feels compelled to repeat certain behaviors and very anxious if he is prevented from doing so, he may be suffering from OCD. OCD is an anxiety disorder that consists of worries (obsessions) and rituals (repeated behaviors). Sometimes the child is aware of the worry (i.e. he is afraid that someone in his family will become sick) and sometimes he just feels anxious without knowing why. In either case, he discovers a series of repetitive actions that makes him feel temporarily calmer. For instance, he may count numbers in his head, or take a certain number of steps forward and backward, or wash his hands a certain number of times or write and rewrite and rewrite his schoolwork. There are many variations of repetitive behaviors that those who have OCD may perform. If the child’s behavior interferes with his functioning at home or school or if he is very distressed by having to do them, it is highly possible that OCD is the culprit. However, only a professional child psychologist or psychiatrist can make an accurate diagnosis and prescribe an appropriate treatment plan (usually consisting of cognitive behavioral therapy -CBT and sometimes, medication as well).
  • Physical Disorders and Medications. Occasionally repetitive behaviors can be symptomatic of a medical condition or a reaction to medication. Your pediatrician or GP can do an assessment for you.

Habits

What’s the difference between a bad habit, a nervous habit and a compulsive habit? When should a parent be concerned about a child’s habit?

Bad Habits
Everyone has bad habits. Leaving one’s dish on the table is a bad habit – one that many kids (and adults!) have. Calling a sibling “stupid” or some other insulting name can be a bad habit. Slamming the car door too hard can also be a bad habit. A bad habit is any repetitive behavior that needs improvement. That behavior can be a small, annoying behavior or it can be a more serious problematic behavior. For instance, a teen might have a bad habit of calling home past midnight to say that he’ll be out later than expected, or, he might have a really bad habit of forgetting to call home at all and just showing up at 3 in the morning.

Parents can help their children overcome bad habits by using normal parenting techniques like teaching, rewarding and disciplining. If the child’s bad habit is interfering with his health or functioning, however, then professional intervention is a good idea. For instance, a child who is chronically sleep-deprived due to going to bed too late or who is doing poorly in school due to chronically getting up too late, may benefit from counseling or other appropriate therapy.

Nervous Habits
Nervous habits are bodily behaviors that aim to discharge stress or tension. Twirling one’s hair, biting one’s nails, rocking back and forth, shaking one’s feet while seated – all these actions are examples of nervous habits. Talking rapidly, running to the bathroom urgently, gulping down food, giggling inappropriately – these, too, can be nervous habits.

If a child has a nervous habit he or she may benefit from learning better techniques for stress reduction. There are children’s classes and groups for yoga and mindfulness meditation that can be helpful. Alternative therapies can also help. For instance, herbal medicine can come the system down and Bach Flower Therapy can relieve stress and tension. Parental nagging to stop the nervous habit, on the other hand, does not help at all – if anything, it might increase the nervous habit. If the habit is bothering the child or parent, a consultation with a mental health professional may be helpful.

Compulsive Habits
While bad habits and nervous habits occur to some extent in almost everyone, compulsive habits occur only in those who have various mental health disorders. Eating disorders often involve compulsive activities like weighing oneself or cutting food into tiny bits. Certain kinds of psychotic disorders also have compulsive symptoms.

Compulsive habits are most characteristic of the anxiety disorder called obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). This sort of habit is more ritualistic than the habits we’ve discussed so far. For instance, someone with a “nervous” habit might tap her feet while waiting in a long line. However, someone with a compulsive habit might tap her feet exactly 13 times – not because she is tense, but because she is attempting to reduce truly anxious, troubling feelings. Tapping exactly 13 times – not one less or one more -is a compulsion. A compulsion is a specific action whose purpose is to calm the anxiety associated with troubling obsessions (thoughts or sensations). There are many, many types of compulsive habits. Washing one’s hands a certain number of times is a common compulsive habit that often results in red, chapped, even bleeding skin. Counting steps, saying certain words or numbers, checking things repeatedly, praying in a specified way not characteristic for others who practice the same religion – all of these can be compulsive habits. The child who engages in these or other compulsive habits is a slave to the habit – he or she MUST perform the action or else suffers overwhelming anxiety.

Compulsive habits do not tend to go away by themselves. Instead, they get worse and worse over time and spread into more and more styles of compulsive habits. The sooner a child receives professional treatment for compulsive habits, the sooner the child will be able to lead a normal, healthy, compulsion-free life. If you think that your child’s habits may be compulsive in nature, arrange for an assessment with a mental health professional (psychologist or psychiatrist). Treatment can help!

Rocking and Shaking

Babies often rock back and forth in their cribs starting around 6 months of age and are usually growing out of it by around a year and a half. The motion of their own bodies is soothing; babies love the sensation of being rocked by themselves or others.

Some children (and adults!)  also use rhythmic movements to “calm their nerves.” Rocking back and forth or shaking their legs helps to relieve stress. The behavior may be done almost subconsciously (without conscious intention or awareness) – it just seems to happen on its own. In other words, the child or teen does not actively think to him or herself, “I’ll rock now” or “I’ll shake my legs now.” While the child is sitting in a chair working or talking, the movements occur. Other people can interrupt the process by pointing it out: “Stop shaking your legs!” At that point, the child becomes aware that he or she was moving his legs. However, just a few minutes after stopping the movement, it usually starts again.

If your child is a “mover and shaker,” consider the following tips:

Rhythmic Movements are Usually Harmless
In otherwise normal children and teens, rocking and/or shaking is a harmless “nervous habit.” However, like other nervous habits, it can become socially unacceptable. Excessive movements disturb other people, even though they don’t seem to bother the rocker/shaker. There is an annoyance factor when someone keeps moving his or her body. If your child’s teacher reports negative peer reactions or other disturbances in school as a result of rocking or shaking, it’s time to help your child lose this habit and find more appropriate ways to self-soothe. When rocking and other rhythmic behaviors occur in a child who has other neurological or behavioral abnormalities, be sure to get a complete medical or psychiatric assessment. In these cases, the rocking may be part of a medical syndrome that requires attention.

Nagging Doesn’t Help
Telling a child to stop rocking or shaking is not an effective way of curing the habit. Although the child may stop for a moment or two, he or she will start again. Since the behavior is out of the child’s awareness, he or she is not exactly aware of when it begins or even that it is happening and therefore, has no effective way to interrupt it on a regular basis. It is annoying for the child to be told repeatedly to stop moving. Since this strategy causes tension between parent and child and does not effectively treat the problem, it cannot be recommended!

Stress Reduction May Help
Anything that helps the child relax his or her nervous system will help both directly and indirectly. The direct form of help is that it may relieve the tension and therefore the need to self-soothe. The indirect form is that it may make it easier for the child to successfully apply behavioral strategies. Herbal remedies or Bach Flower Remedies that calm the body and mind can be very helpful in both regards. See a professional herbalist or naturopath to assess your child and make up the appropriate herbal remedies. Alow time to see the results. Similarly, see a Bach Flower Practitioner to make up an individually tailored treament bottle for your child. Consider remedies like Agrimony and Impatiens and others that address your child’s personality. A homeopath or other natural healer may be able to help as well. In addition, it may be possible to teach the child stress reduction techniques like yoga or even breath-based meditations (or, for teens, mindfulness meditation). In some cases, regular, intense exercise will be helpful. Of course, reducing stress in the house is always helpful so anything you can do to keep calm, enhance your marriage and de-stress yourself, will help as well.

Behavioral Therapy
When rocking becomes dysfunctional (excessive, bothersome, embarrassing or otherwise disturbing), consult a behavioral therapist – someone who is experienced and skilled in the treatment of habits. There are also habit removal workbooks (i.e. The Habit Change Workbook by Pedrick) that you may be able to work through with your child or that your older child or teen can work through indepedently.

Pulls Out Hair

Hair-pulling in children and adolescents may be perceived as a harmless habit. After all, if your child likes to pull, say 3-5 strands of hair a day, it shouldn’t make much difference to his or her scalp and hair health. The amount of hair that falls off naturally probably exceeds the couple of strands kids and teens pull for fun anyways. When should hair pulling become a concern?

Hair-pulling behavior can range in severity from mild to severe. There are those who ritualize hair-pulling for aesthetic purposes, e.g. getting rid daily of the strands that don’t fall obediently with the rest, or hair considered as “dead”. There are others who pull hair strands when they’re frustrated or upset. And then there are those who suffer from an impulse control disorder called trichotillomania – compulsive hair-pulling that can be so bad, sufferers end up with permanent patches of baldness.

What’s Behind Compulsive Hair-Pulling?
Like many impulse control disorders, compulsive hair-pulling is caused by a feeling of incredible tension and anxiety. For some reason, hair-pulling relieves the tension and anxiety. Once the hair-pulling is done, the child or teen with trichotillomania feels an immediate sense of release, gratification and even pleasure. This dynamic of “tension-behavior-relief” is what makes hair-pulling addictive, progressive and after a while, very difficult to resist.

Hair-pulling in trichotillomania is often concentrated on the hair on the head, although sufferers may also focus on eyelashes, eyebrows, moustache and beard, and hair from other places of the body. Hair-pulling can be of individual strands, although more serious versions of the illness have patients pulling clumps at a time.

Are There Serious Health Effects?
At first, hair-pulling may not cause any physical harm to hair follicles and the scalp. If compulsive hair-pulling can be stopped early, hair growth resumes normally. But in severe cases, repeated hair-pulling can irreversibly damage hair follicles, inhibiting the ability of hair to grow, resulting in permanent baldness.

How can Parents Help Kids and Teens with Hair-Pulling Problems?
There are many ways parents can assist their children with compulsive hair-pulling.

First, it helps to understand that compulsive hair-pulling behavior is an impulse control disorder. This means that it won’t go away by simply telling your child to stop. In fact, unless your child is too young to understand the impact of his or her condition, your child likely already wants to stop — except that he or she can’t seem to quit.

What parents can do is address the tension and anxiety that causes hair-pulling behavior. Hair-pulling is essentially a coping mechanism, a way to get relief from stress. This is not as irrational as it sounds, and may have a biological basis. When our bodies feel pain, such as after the hurt caused by hair-pulling, our brain releases natural pain relievers that makes us feel good. It’s this feeling that people with trichotillomania like and chase, not the act of pulling hair. Although reducing stress will help the child have less intense episodes of hair-pulling, it will not cure the condition. A cure generally requires therapy. However, parents can reduce stress by being careful not to yell at the child or use harsh discipline, help manage the child’s academic load by consulting with teachers as necessary, limit the amount of marital conflict they display in front of their child and so on. In addition, they can teach their child healthy ways to release stress such as through exercise, the use of natural remedies like Bach Flower Remedies (consult a practitioner for best results), use of aromatherapy (consult a book or a practitioner for ideas), use of yoga, breathing techniques, EFT (emotional freedom technique) and other self-help strategies.

It’s best if parents can see professional help for their child who is pulling hair. Professionals can set up a cognitive-behavioral therapy to help decrease hair-pulling.

At the end of the day, compulsive hair pulling is not really about hair, nor about beauty and appearance. It’s about internal regulation and emotional management. If symptoms persist or worsen despite the interventions listed above, then parents are recommended to consult a psychologist or psychiatrist.