Helping Children to Overcome Phobias

Q: I live in Belgium and have a four-and-a-half-year-old daughter who has a phobia of buttons. She never wears anything with buttons. And she hates it when I or her baby brother wear any clothing with buttons.

I was wondering if you have any tips or ideas about how to deal with that.

Thank you!

A: Had you written to me two years ago, I would have told you that I have never heard of that particular phobia. In the past two years, however, I have received numerous letters from readers confronting the exact same issue. In fact, two chapters in my new book, The Parenting Partnership (Hamodia Treasures, 2013), are devoted to this topic.

In case my book is not available where you live, I will summarize my recommendations here. The most effective method for dealing with this phobia is systematic desensitization. That means that the child should be introduced to gradually increasing levels of exposure to the object of her fear, in this case buttons.

This does not mean that any child should be forced or traumatized. Rather, the principle of “tafasta meruba lo tafasta; tafasta mu’at tafasta” (Rosh Hashanah 4b) should be applied. In other words, do not attempt to accomplish too much too soon.

More specifically, you need to create a relaxed, comfortable environment. Then you gradually expose your daughter to clothing with buttons. For example, when you have plenty of time and are not rushed or harried, offer to read your daughter a story from her favorite book. Snuggle up close to her and make this a cozy, enjoyable experience.

The next day, repeat the same procedure. This time, however, you should first put on a blouse or sweater with as few buttons as possible. It would even be worth buying something just for this purpose with only one or two buttons. If your daughter tolerates this, repeat this strategy every day for a full week.

If your daughter does not allow you to sit next to her while you are wearing buttons, change your clothes and read her the story anyway. The next day, try again to snuggle up to her while wearing the garment with one or two buttons. Keep trying this as often as it takes until she can tolerate your wearing something with buttons.

Once your daughter tolerates your wearing an article of clothing with one or two buttons while you read her a story every day for a full week, you are ready to slightly increase her exposure. Put on something else with three or four buttons and see if she can tolerate that. If so, continue increasing the number of buttons on your garment until you are wearing something with a full row of buttons. If she cannot put up with your wearing more buttons, then go back and spend another week wearing the clothing with only one or two buttons.

Once your daughter can stand your wearing a garment with a full row of buttons for a whole week, gently suggest that perhaps she would allow you to drape an article of her clothing with buttons over her legs or simply to sit next to it. If she allows that, continue doing so for another week. If not, drop the subject and bring it up a few days later. And repeat this until she does permit you to place a buttoned garment on or close to her.

Once your daughter allows you to place clothing with buttons on or near her for a full week while you are reading to her, gently suggest that she wear the item just during the reading of the story. If she agrees, take the garment off her as soon as the story is finished. If she refuses, drop the subject and bring it up a few days later.

Once your daughter agrees to wear something with buttons while you are reading her a story every day for a full week, gently suggest that she wear the garment for a brief period before or after the story time. If she agrees, gradually increase the time until she is wearing something with buttons for an entire day. If she refuses, wait a few days and try again.

Throughout this process it is extremely important that you praise your daughter for each “success.” Whenever she “graduates” to the next level, you must celebrate her accomplishment and treat it as the achievement it really is. With enough support, patience and perseverance, you and your daughter can definitely succeed in overcoming this difficult but treatable condition. And once you have succeeded, please write back to me at Hamodia so that other parents can receive the chizuk they need to help their children who are struggling with phobias.


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