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Fears and phobias

703 Views 11 Replies 6 Participants Last post by  Adele_Mommy
Our family flew to Arizona in February. The trip home was disastrous for my 3.5 yo dd. She became absolutely terrified, inconsolable and frantic. She screamed and wept for about 30-40 minutes. We finally calmed her down be putting the laptop in front of her with a very sophisticated first-person type computer game that she pretty much lost herself in. We don't do video games that much and I was surprised that she liked it so much.

Ever since we got home she has been afraid of the car. She will not get in the car. We have tried everything. The exact nature of her fear seems to be going downhill, which I can only assume stems from her experience in the plane. We've tried bribes (I honestly thought the promise of chocolate cupcakes would have been enough, but it wasn't). We've tried doing baby steps over several days to get her comfortable in the car (first we got in the car, then she sat in her carseat, then we buckled her in and started the engine, then we backed up, then we drove around the parkade.) She was OK till we tried to hit the street at which point she became absolutely hysterical.

I honestly don't know how to proceed. I'm losing my patience (it's been over two months since we've been anywhere in the car) and I feel the urge to buckle her in, turn up the stereo and drive till the screaming stops. Of course I won't - but I'm tempted. I believe it's a legitimate phobia, as she really doesn't gain anything by avoiding the car. My dp has placed a call to a play therapist, but then the problem is how do we get her to an appointment. Her fear extends to all forms of public transit. I wonder sometimes if taking her from a place of enormous anxiety directly into a very involved computer game is part of the problem in that she never really resolved her feelings of fear - she just bottled them. I would love any insight you wise people could share.
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I'm presuming she was fine in the car previous to this, also that she was fine in the flight OUT to Arizona, so its just since coming back.

Personally I dont think this is a fear or phobia at all, I think its possibly a control issue, just because it doesnt gain her anything obvious its still a control trigger like the food issue with alot of kids, they will turn down food they have always liked to gain control in that environment.

If it were me I'm afraid I would put her in the car, strap her in and drive.

The more you indulge it it will prolong it.
Thanks for your resonse. As I mentioned in my post, that's just not the direction I'd like to take. Even if it is a control thing, I don't think this approach is terribly respectful and would potentially damage the trust relationship that we have.
Oh that sounds frustrating. DS has had some phobias too that have taken a long time to get over. I know you said you tried cupcake bribery but what about a special toy for the car? I'm not usually one for bribes but thats the only way I could ds to get his hair cut. I spent at least a year giving him bad haircuts while he was sleeping!

Or maybe even a movie on one of those car dvd players?
It sounds like a true phobia to me and I think you were on the right track with the desensitization. The thing with desensitization is eventually you are going to take a step that she cannot do the first time and that is OK. It is part of the process. I have claustrophobia and I did desensitization by going in scarier and scarier (for me) rooms in my house with the door shut until I could spend 30 minutes in the furnace room in the basement. The first couple rooms were totally easy. Then one room I had to leave after just a few seconds and try again later. Eventually I was able to get past that step.

I do think control is a factor, but I think it is part and parcel with the phobia. For claustrophobia, an elevator is orders of magnitude harder than a room, because if I get really scared I really can't get out - not until the elevator reaches the floor. I am not in control of the situation. For your daughter, being buckled into her seat in a moving car driven by someone else is loss of control. I would suggest breaking the activity down into smaller steps. She was fine in the parking lot. When you entered the street did she know where and how far you were going? Can you agree with her in advance to drive just to the corner and back the first time and assure her that you will pull the car over to the curb immediately if she can't handle it? Knowing that she has an escape option may be enough that she won't have to actually use it. Then once she has done that you can make the trips longer, then add in hills if that is an issue for her, and the last step would be going on a drive with you without knowing in advance where you are going.

I hope that helps. Good luck!
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Thanks Adele. I'm wondering about pace though. Do we do a little step every day? Twice a day? Do we repeat the same step till she gets comfortable with it, or do we move on once the step has been accomplished? Also (and I know this is a complete variable), but I wonder how long this might take?

Good for you for tackling your phobia and thanks for sharing your experience.
What was the video game?

What does your daughter say about her fears? Have you asked/is she able to say specifically what it is that she's afraid of?

I would start by asking, in a nonconfrontational way of course, what it is about car rides that she doesn't like. Then you'll have a better idea of what you need to address.

For example you say she doesn't seem to like going downhill. Is that what she says? Is she afraid the car won't stop? Or does she not like the sensation of going downhill?
The game was for preschoolers and involved throwing snowballs at snowmen to knock their hats off, but it was pretty sophisticated. Her specific fears are going downhill, so I think it's the fear of losing control and falling, which corresponds to what she felt on the plane as we were taking off and the plane banked left and all of a sudden she could see the ground out of her window. Actually she does say in no uncertain terms that she is afraid of falling. We've watched cars drive by on the road and noted that none of them fall, but that doesn't seem to help.
Maybe you could find a video online that shows how cars are made, explain the brake system and how it works? Or put a stuffed animal in her carseat and show how the straps keep it from falling?

Maybe try another test ride with dad driving and you in the backseat holding her hand?

This is a tough situation because you want to take her fear seriously but at the same time make it clear to her that her fear is unfounded.

Is there any chance that the play therapist will come to you? Or do a phone consult?

Originally Posted by Vancouver Mommy View Post
Thanks Adele. I'm wondering about pace though. Do we do a little step every day? Twice a day? Do we repeat the same step till she gets comfortable with it, or do we move on once the step has been accomplished? Also (and I know this is a complete variable), but I wonder how long this might take?

Good for you for tackling your phobia and thanks for sharing your experience.
Well, I know this doesn't help at all, but all of that is pretty variable. Kind of whatever works for you. When I did desensitization I stayed on one room until I could stay in it for thirty minutes with the door shut three times and then moved on to the next room. If you have time, I think two sessions a day would be good and in each session you could do one or more steps depending on how it goes. If a step is totally easy, then go ahead and move on to the next step that same session. If your dd barely makes it through, praise a lot, but I would repeat that step before going on to the next one.

I'm not surprised the cupcake didn't work, but a reward presented as a goal you are both working toward together can be very helpful. I was going to be going to a new school with many interior classrooms with no windows, so it was essential that I get rid of or reduce my claustrophobia that summer. For fear of the car, the obvious goal/reward would be a trip that would be really fun for her that requires travel by car. You could present it something like this: "I would really like to take you to the Children's Museum next month, but of course we'd need to drive. So let's do these exercises each day now, so that you can ride in a car again before that."

My mother helped me and I know she had a book with a very detailed plan in it, but I don't remember the specific book (it was a very long time ago). Here are a couple that look reasonable:
Freeing Your Child from Anxiety
Monsters Under the Bed and Other Childhood Fears: Helping Your Child Overcome Anxieties, Fears, and Phobias (this one has a chapter on fear of cars)

I don't think the process should take that long. It could be accomplished in a few days, but don't try to rush it or put a lot of pressure on. If you aren't seeing significant progress in a week then I think you might need to reevaluate and consider getting outside help. I'm not sure that play therapy would be very helpful (or help at all honestly), but I am not a professional or expert obviously and maybe the play therapist helps with other kinds of therapy too. Also, while it is good and probably helpful to reassure your dd that she is safe, don't make the mistake of thinking you can talk her out of her fears. A phobia doesn't happen in the rational part of the brain, so I don't think understanding how the brakes in a car work is going to help. Just my opinion of course - I could be totally wrong. The only thing that I know almost always works is gradual exposure to the fear with loving support.

Once again, best of luck, and please update and let us know how it goes!
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I would add as an even babier step in the desensitization that if she cant get into the car, you could start by "practicing" what you'll do. I did this with my son a number of times, from when he was going in for surgery what wearing the mask that would make him unconscious would be like (how horrible that ordeal was!), to getting a splinter out. In both cases, I held him in my lap, talked in as soothing a voice as possible, and walked us imaginarily through the steps. So for getting in the car, I would hold her on my lap and say in as slow and soothing a voice as possible "ok, so what we will do (in a few days, or whenever) is i will put you in your car seat, and then take the buckle, and snap it into place, and then close your door, and then walk around to my side of the car, and then .... etc. etc. and then we will drive to the end of the driveway, and then i will come unbuckle you and take you out". Or something along those lines. I find that once I "practice" something like that once with my son, he asks me to do it over and over and over, and it really gets him ready. Just a thought. I know how hard these phobias can be!
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mamaLHK makes a very good suggestion. I had forgotten about visualization (imagination) desensitization.
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