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‘You have to confront yourself with your fears to overcome them’, is the age-old wisdom. Well now: it’s true. This is proven by the ‘durfpoli’, the dare clinic, where many children and adolescents overcome their phobias after just a few sessions.
Dogs. They are the most common nightmare of children. The reason that children can no longer walk happily through the woods, because they’re always on their guard outside. A typical phobia that they know how to handle at the dare clinic. Many a child will cuddle a gentle four-legged friend by the end of the course. "It’s bizarre how fast it goes sometimes. When they come in they don’t even want to be on the same floor as a dog, and a few weeks later they’ll give them a biscuit”, says Rachel de Jong. The psychologist is working on her dissertation, at the University of Groningen, on the treatment of these types of phobias among young people. She is also the project leader at the dare clinic where such children are treated. This is a cooperation with Accare, a youth mental health care organisation. The dare clinic has grown into a network with facilities in Groningen, Friesland and Drenthe.
The treatment offered there is known as ‘exposure therapy’, which has proven successful in the Netherlands and around the world. It is literally confronting fear. Rachel de Jong: “Children develop such a phobia in their minds. They are scared dogs will always jump up, bark loudly or bite. We show them that a dog usually behaves very differently. That’s new information which overrides the old false information, as it were, that they always held on to.”
In three one-hour sessions many children and adolescents are helped to overcome their fears. This happens in small but ambitious steps. Carolien Weidenaar from Accare treats children in Leeuwarden. “Together with the children and their parents we draw up a step-by-step plan. Step one, for example, is looking at a photograph of a dog and the final step is touching a dog. It all varies per child. One phobia runs deeper than the other.”
Dogs are by no means the only source of anxiety. The almost one hundred children that are either being or have been treated at the dare clinic suffer from a whole range of phobias. Spiders, for example, insects, heights, small spaces, and even less imaginable fears like of people with an amputated limb and fruit.
“This is Peter.” Rachel de Jong brings out a transparent box containing a large, hairy red-knee tarantula. “Totally harmless but frightening for many. We’ve had children with arachnophobia who dared to touch Peter by the end.”
This success – and there are many more successes – was the reason to extend the dare clinic, which started in Groningen in the summer of 2017, to more of Accare’s locations. Carolien Weidenaar: “It is easily accessible, there is no heavy veil of juvenile psychiatry, which you usually see in the treatment of anxiety disorders. Children also come from the rest of the country to the North for treatment, because no such dare clinic exists elsewhere.”
This low threshold also means that the dare clinic is not suitable for every child with a phobia. Rachel de Jong: “We’re good at slightly lighter phobias. Our intake is therefore essential; that’s when we test whether a treatment is likely to be successful. As soon as there are more underlying psychological problems we refer them to the standard care services, for example of Accare. We want to treat phobias that are relatively simple to solve, but draw heavily on a child’s life.”
“A girl with arachnophobia who no longer dared to go sailing because she once saw a spider on her boat, for example. Or a girl who stopped doing athletics competitions because she feared loud bangs, like from a starting pistol. Sometimes it is also just practically unfeasible to treat specific phobias. Someone with a fear of flying is difficult to confront with his fears at the clinic.”
With dogs that’s easier. A network has now been created around the dare clinic of dog owners who are happy to use their animals for the treatment of children. Spiders can also be arranged, beekeepers and a garden company occasionally lend out their bumblebees and bees, and wasps are caught by the researchers themselves. The lifts and toilets in Accare’s buildings are good spaces for treating claustrophobia. For fear of heights, the Martini Tower was once ascended by a young patient, after some first steps on stools and tables.
“We also had a boy who got into a state of panic because of people with an amputated limb”, says Carolien Weidenaar. “He couldn’t bear being in the same room, not even in the same hotel on holiday when he saw someone there with an amputated leg. That’s a big obstacle. In the end, we taught him that his fear was unreal and he dared to sit in a room at the clinic with a man who showed him his artificial leg. It sometimes takes a bit of searching, but people are usually happy to cooperate when it comes to helping children to get rid of their fears.”
They do so by occasionally bringing their animals to one of the dare clinics in the Accare buildings in the North. And it’s very possible that the operating range will be expanded. Carolien Weidenaar: “For us, this is a wonderful addition; a new, extremely effective and accessible treatment. It’s for good reason that we’ve expanded the number of clinics so quickly.”
Rachel de Jong hopes to obtain her doctorate on the subject. She is especially curious about how much difference it makes that the confrontation with fears occur in the clinics themselves. “In most treatments, the confrontation takes place at the end of the therapy. Parents and children are given this as homework. Like: try taking the neighbour’s dog for a walk. My assumption is that it’s better for the confrontation to occur together with the therapist. For starters, because then you know for certain that it really happens. Parents have the very natural tendency to protect their children. And that is precisely what you shouldn’t do to help your children get rid of a phobia.”
After three one-hour sessions of confrontation, most children will have been relieved of their phobia. But it’s still not over. Rachel de Jong: “You have to keep it up, because it’s not so easy to eradicate the patterns in your mind. So, keep on confronting because otherwise there may be a chance of relapse. These phobias are both learned and innate. And sometimes they are fuelled by the media. A fear of spiders and sharks, for example, is not rational, but because of films it is widespread.”
Written by Northern Knowledge. Photos: Pepijn van den Broeke.
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