The most important thing to understand about phobias is that they are not rational. A child who is afraid of dogs isn’t going to be talked out of it, scolded out of it, or punished out of it. It simply doesn’t matter if we show that child a small dog, a gentle dog, or even maybe a stuffed dog. It doesn’t matter if we assure him that we will protect him from dogs, if we tell him that dogs are “man’s best friend,” or if we promise him an ice cream cone if he’ll just pet our dog, just once, to see that he doesn’t have to be afraid.
The trouble is that he is afraid. He may be so afraid that his heart races, his breathing gets irregular, he starts to sweat, and he shakes. He absolutely, positively believes that he has to get away from the dog or he’ll surely die. If he can’t leave, he may cling to the nearest grownup in terror. This is a full-blown phobic response to a feared object. If it happens more than once, chances are this child will be so afraid of the awful feelings that he knows go with being around dogs that he’ll do everything he can to avoid them. If the feelings are strong enough, he may not be able to tolerate even a picture of a dog or a story about dogs. Lectures and reassurances are totally beside the point. All this child can feel is his fear and his fear of what happens to him when he’s afraid.
Substitute “School” for “Dog”
Most of us grownups get it when a child is afraid of something like a dog, especially if we know that the child was once bitten by a dog or witnessed someone being attacked by a dog. As frustrating as it may be to try to calm the child, we understand that there is a rational cause to what may now be an irrational overreaction. We respond with comfort and compassion, at least for a while. We may even decide that it isn’t the worst thing in the world for someone to want to avoid dogs. Dog loving isn’t necessary for survival in our world and dog-avoidance is actually quite doable.
Adults, especially adults who work in schools, generally have a much harder time being understanding when the thing that makes a child afraid is school or a school subject. After all, people who become educators liked school. For them, school was a place where they felt successful, where they learned neat stuff, where they were comfortable. Fear of school subjects lies outside their personal frame of reference. It’s a big stretch to truly understand that a kid can be just as phobic about school, or math class, or writing a sentence as another child might be about dogs. But some children and teens, maybe more than we have understood in our culture, are really and truly phobic about parts or all of an ordinary school day.
Think about it. For some kids, going to school is like confronting a vicious dog every day. For them, school is a place where they can’t succeed, where they feel bad about themselves, where they constantly fall short of adult and peer expectations. For them, every math lesson is another opportunity to show how stupid they are; every group project an occasion to disappoint their classmates; every test, quiz, and question-and-answer session a chance to be humiliated again. Day after day, year after year, they are thrown into the situation they fear most. And day after day, year after year, the fear is reinforced.