Therapist shares tips to top anxiety, phobias

Editor’s note: This post is part of our Faces of Kids in Crisis series where we ask readers to tell us in their own words their experiences with youth mental health. Watch for new installments each Monday.

Janice Schreier, a clinical therapist based in La Crosse, has helped her own son overcome phobias through a method of exposing him to fears in gradual steps. 

I have a passion for working with children battling anxiety. Panic disorder? Bring it on! I have some techniques to help you with that battle. Obsessive-compulsive disorder? A favorite of mine, which is highly treatable. Social anxiety? I will engage in a conversation about this highly treatable disorder with anyone, any time. Specific phobias? This one not only hits me on a professional level, but it hits me on a personal level, too.

I am a clinical therapist and I have the privilege of working with children, adolescents, and families who battle anxiety. I also have the personal honor of parenting a child with anxiety. I say honor, because it has made me a more creative, patient parent. My oldest son, Andrew, has a history of battling anxiety, including specific phobias. One of Andrew’s first phobias developed around riding school buses. He started out in kindergarten riding the bus daily and then one day, it seemed like overnight, he developed an intense fear of riding the bus.

In my professional position, when I work with children with anxiety, my focus is on teaching the child and his parents how to face anxiety. Anxiety preys on an individual and makes that person doubt his abilities, and wears down his confidence. I see my job as a therapist as one where I coach, encourage, and motivate parents and children to face what causes them fear, in order to decrease that specific fear. I strongly believe in the importance of working with parents in supporting their child in battling anxiety and other mental health disorders. I firmly believe that any child can overcome any fear through the use of education, strong family support, and exposure therapy.

Exposure therapy is the technique of exposing a person to the thing that he fears the most, in a systematic way so that he faces the fear slowly without becoming overwhelmed from the fear. Exposure therapy helps an individual to overcome almost any fear. Using exposure therapy and motivation, a hierarchy was created where Andrew was slowly exposed to new situations until his anxiety reduced. A hierarchy is a ladder of fears, where an individual faces lower level fears first, with the goal of facing the main fear after confidence has been gained. We created a hierarchy where Andrew faced lower-level fears, and ultimately faced his fear and rode his school bus. Since then, we have used exposure therapy to address his fear of climbing stairs, going over bridges, and swimming to name a few.

Today, Andrew is becoming the master of facing anxiety. He has learned that if you face anxiety, you can overcome it. Recently, when dealing with a change in his life, he said to me, “I think we need to do one of those hierarchy things you make me do for facing tough stuff.” I agreed we could do that, and asked him what he would need to do to face his anxiety. My son, very wisely stated, “I have to just do it.”

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