Common phobias in children could be resolved in a single three-hour therapy session, compared to several sessions, a study has found.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is offered as a one-hour session every week for between four and 12 weeks to treat phobias in children. These fears can prevent children from enjoying common childhood activities, such as playing in the park or visiting friends.
Researchers at the University of York worked with the University of Sheffield to analyse 260 children in 27 UK mental health services over five years, to understand the impact of CBT on common phobias in children.
Tacking common phobias in children with therapy
Three types of phobias were common to approximately 84% of children that took part in the study – fear of animals, vomit and blood, injury and injections. The researchers compared the success rate and cost of the current multi-session CBT method with the same method that is adapted to last just three hours.
The sessions included graded exposure therapy, which means that if a child has a fear of dogs, for example, they would first see a dog facing away from them with a handler through a window in a door, and when a child is noticeably ‘bored’ with this activity, the therapist coaches them to move on to opening the door, until gradually the child gets closer to the dog.
Professor Lina Gega, Director of the Institute of Mental Health Research at York, said: “We found that this single three-hour session reduced a child’s phobias, and in most cases resolved them, at the same success rate as multiple sessions did. Our method was based on the premise that the opposite of fear is boredom, and children can become bored quite quickly by repeated activity.
“There are a number of issues with therapies that span across weeks for children, mainly the anxiety it causes the child each week ahead of the session, and the time it takes out of a child and a parent’s life, but also the cost to the NHS, and the limitations in access to the sessions.
“We often find that with multiple sessions, the drop-out rate is high, so now that we know that just one three-hour session can be just as effective in children, it could open up new opportunities for clinical services to reduce waiting lists, resolve attendance barriers, and save money.”
Other therapies may be needed to tackle other conditions
The study acknowledged that some severe phobias in children can coexist with other health conditions, such as ADHD. Therefore, once a phobia is ‘cured’ other forms of therapy may still be required to tackle other health conditions. The researchers suggested that resolving the phobia in children may help understand behaviour or improve known conditions.
Professor Gega said: “Fears are actually a very rational part of what it means to be human; fears can protect us from getting hurt. It is only when these fears start to prevent us from doing things in daily life that they can become a clinical issue.
“You can imagine, however, how liberating it is for a child and a parent that after just one therapy session, they are able to go to the park without fear of dogs, or go out to eat food with their friends without fear of getting sick, or able to get vaccines that can be life-saving.
“The next stage of this work is to disseminate our findings more widely among health professionals and offer support in how to adapt weeks if not months of CBT into a single condensed session, with the hope that this can become a standard treatment option for children with phobias.”