Helping Your Child Overcome Negative Associations

Q: My 10-year-old daughter, who is my oldest child, is very mature and clever. She has some fears, however, that I would like to help her overcome. Some of the main things are fear of blackouts, thunderstorms and fire.

I think it started about two years ago when our area was hit by bad weather and we had some mighty thunderclaps and blackouts. As the winter approaches, I see her mood changing as she becomes more moody and nervous. She doesn’t like when I leave the house at night, even if I leave her with a babysitter. I think she is afraid that it might rain or there might be a blackout.

This past Shabbos, for example, she really panicked (her face paled, and her palms felt numb) as thunder and lightning hit our area. I remember now that close to Lag BaOmer she was behaving the same way (I guess thinking about the bonfires). She only wanted to sleep in our room and even woke up wet one morning, something that hasn’t happened before. I would like to get advice as to what I can do to help my daughter cope and overcome her fears.

Thank you very much in advance.

A: Your letter presents a classical example of the psychological phenomenon of negative associations. Associations are disparate situations or circumstances which are connected in a person’s mind as a result of some similarities and thereby evoke similar emotional states. Negative associations are when negative emotions, such as anger, sadness or anxiety, are involved.

Associations function like the hermeneutical principle of gezeirah shavah (Braisa of Rabi Yishmael, Sifra, P’sichah). More specifically, if we experience a particularly intense emotion during a special event, then we are likely to feel the same way, even many years later, if we find ourselves in a similar situation. We are all familiar, for example, with the experience of having heard a song in the past while we were gripped with an intense feeling. Then, at a later date and under entirely different circumstances, we find ourselves re-experiencing those same emotions just by hearing that old, familiar tune.

Your daughter, therefore, experienced intense anxiety two years ago during the blackouts. As there was rain and thunder at that time, your daughter now connects the fear she experienced during the blackouts with any rain, thunder or inclement weather.

Your letter also illustrates how negative associations often become more generalized over time. Initially, for example, your daughter was only afraid of blackouts and lightning. Since fire shares some similarities with lightning, she is now fearful of the normally joyous holiday of Lag BaOmer as well. And because generalized negative associations tend to increase over time, your daughter now suffers mood changes as winter approaches and recently had an episode of age-inappropriate bed wetting.

Bear in mind that any accommodation to your daughter’s fears will only exacerbate them. I am referring here to such things as allowing her to sleep in your bed or refraining from going out at night when she puts up a fuss. These concessions may calm her down momentarily but will undermine your long-term goals.

To be helpful, you should first enlist your daughter’s cooperation in the enterprise of reducing her fears. Ask her directly if she is prepared to work on them with you. If she is not ready, ask her why and what it would take for her to get ready.

Once she is on board, make a hierarchy of her fears, listing them from mildest to most intense. Then begin with the weakest fear. Get her to verbalize what frightens her the most about it. Ask her what goes through her mind and what her worst-case scenario is. It is also quite useful if you can record everything in a notebook as you are talking with her.

Then draw up a list of strategies to help her cope with that fear. Remind her that these techniques are not intended to eliminate her fears but to reduce them. You do not want to inflate her expectations, which could easily lead to disappointment. Rather, you want her to set more realistic, achievable goals.

These strategies should include the kinds of things we naturally tell ourselves to calm down whenever we are fearful, such as “This won’t last forever,” “There is no physical danger here” and “I was all right the last time this happened so I’ll probably be O.K. this time, too.”

Finally, you must look for and/or create opportunities for her to practice implementing these strategies. For example, you could listen to weather forecasts together or use sound effects to simulate a thunderstorm. And after each practice session, you need to review which techniques worked and which did not, while trying to add additional strategies to your list.

If these instructions do not produce any improvement in three to six months, you may want to consider having your daughter work directly with a trained professional who has experience helping children overcome their anxieties.


 

The opinions expressed in this article reflect the view of the author. In all matters of halachah and hashkafah, readers should consult their Rav.