Emotional Staging to Help Treat Childhood Phobia

14 May, 2020
Emotional staging is an effective technique to treat phobias that affect the lives of children. 

Fear is something innate to human beings. Fears are necessary, especially during childhood, to start developing skills. However, when these generate a problem in the child’s daily life, it’s necessary to seek help. Today we’re going to talk about a very effective technique in the treatment of childhood phobias: emotional staging.

Fear or phobia?

The first thing we should be clear about is the difference between fear and phobia. Fear is something natural and adaptive. Throughout our childhood, we have various fears that prepare us to face possible situations of real risk. These evolutionary fears are usually similar in children of the same age and disappear as infants grow and mature.

Nonetheless, when fear is excessive or inappropriate for their age, we may be facing a phobia. According to the DSM-5 manual, a phobia is an excessive or irrational fear that generates intense anxiety and leads the person to avoid that situation. Additionally, it generates great interference in the person’s daily life.

It’s necessary to keep in mind that anxiety in children can manifest itself in the form of tantrums, hugs, or inhibition.

How does a phobia arise and stay?

The origin of a phobia can be due to many things. The most common usually happen after directly experiencing a traumatic situation. In this case, a person associates fear with that experience and, when the situation presents itself again, the conditioned fear will skyrocket.

On the other hand, it’s also possible for a phobia to develop after observing another person experience something traumatic or respond with intense fear to any situation.

Whatever the origin may be, we mustn’t forget that there are certain behaviors that reinforce that fear. For example, if we avoid facing the situation after our first experience, the fear will be reinforced. This happens because we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to verify, through a new encounter, that the situation is actually harmless.

On the other hand, if, in response to a child’s anxiety, parents become overprotective of the situation, it will be more difficult to dissolve that fear. The fear will provide the secondary benefit of being comforted and approved.

What is emotional staging?

Emotional staging is a cognitive-behavioral technique that has proven effective in reducing or eliminating childhood phobias.

First of all, we must carry out, together with the child, an orderly hierarchy of situations that cause anxiety. There are different variations: a child with a dog phobia will feel more fear when coming across a large dog in the street than watching a video of a friendly puppy.

Once this hierarchy is complete, the procedure is to ask the children to choose a movie hero that they consider to be especially brave.

Then, narrate the phobic situation as it really is so that you can later introduce the hero into the story. Despite having the same fear as the child, the hero will know how to bravely cope with the situation.

It’s important for the children to appear as co-protagonists of the story alongside their hero.

Subsequently, you’ll decide who will represent each character to stage the story as a game. Each situation of the hierarchy will be like a chapter of the plot. The story will advance from the ones that produce less fear to the more intense ones.

Emotional Staging to Help Treat Childhood Phobia

What does emotional staging entail?

  • Counterconditioning. It’s this technique’s basic mechanism. It consists of associating a scary situation with emotions that are different and incomparable to fear.
  • Role model. In this case, the hero or character acts as a coping model for the child. Since both of them have the same fear, the child can identify with the hero and copy this character’s way of acting.
  • It’s essential to reinforce every approach that the child makes to this dreaded situation, both with social and material reinforcements. The token economy may be adequate for this.
  • This technique helps children empower themselves and strengthen their self-concept.
  • Since it’s a simple technique, parents will be able to carry it out after a training session. This way, the effect of the therapy can be amplified through its implementation at home.