Agoraphobia in children
Chances are, you’ve probably heard of Agoraphobia. It is generally described as an irrational fear of leaving the house. While it is not common in children, there is evidence to suggest it is on the increase since COVID lockdown. Its symptoms can be far reaching, making it difficult for children to attend school, see friends, play sport or even go to the supermarket with their parents. Here we explore the causes, symptoms and ways to help children with the condition.
What are the symptoms of agoraphobia in children?
What are the symptoms?
It can often be hard to get young people to open up about anxieties they have. On top of this, they might also not be aware of what is causing them. This can make spotting the signs of agoraphobia particularly challenging.
It can start small. A child might make an excuse, such as feeling sick in order to get out of a family gathering. Or they might lie and say football practice isn’t on this week. As standalone events these might seem like nothing, but if they start to happen more frequently it could suggest something more serious.
Spotting the signs of agoraphobia
While symptoms of Agoraphobia can vary, there are some common ones to look out for. They might include being scared of public places, withdrawing themselves from group activities, unexplained anxiety, and changes in mood.
What are the causes?
In truth, the causes of Agoraphobia aren’t widely understood. It can be triggered by a specific event or events. However, it is thought that some people are genetically more susceptible to developing it too.
Sometimes a traumatic event may cause a young person to be afraid to go out. But Agoraphobia doesn’t always have to be the result of something as sudden or as dramatic as this.
A few years ago, Andrew witnessed a terrifying attack that claimed 16 lives and left over 100 injured. Along with his family, he fled the scene and hid in a cafe. He was just 13 at the time.
He explained “I had flashbacks. I was afraid and found public spaces too scary to be in. It was really hard to regain my confidence.”
Fortunately, through one of our specialist practitioners we were able to get Andrew the help he needed. After receiving Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing therapy (EMDR), he was finally able to process these traumatic memories safely.
How is agoraphobia treated?
How is agoraphobia treated?
Children with Agoraphobia respond to different treatments. However, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) tends to be the most commonly used. A practitioner will talk through what is behind the young person's fears. They then set goals to overcoming these worries. If successful, CBT helps identify and change negative thoughts and behaviours. It can be done individually or as a group.
Another way to treat it is through exposure therapy. This involves gradually exposing children to the feared situations or places in a safe and controlled environment. It isn’t that dissimilar to what we might do if we were afraid of public speaking or performing on stage.
Lastly, but no less important, general healthy habits such as exercise and eating a balanced diet should all be encouraged. They help provide an opportunity for young people to socialise and improve their overall self-esteem.
What can parents do to help?
First and foremost, it is about communication and trust. A lot of the symptoms of Agoraphobia can be missed or might be something altogether different. But that doesn’t make picking up on them any less important. Creating a safe space for children to reach out will help immeasurably with their wellbeing.
Encourage your child to talk about their fears. Listen without judgement and reassure where you can. If you think treatment is needed, it’s important that the young person knows the plan and is comfortable with it.
Lastly, be patient. It takes time to overcome agoraphobia. Don't get discouraged if your child doesn't see results immediately. Just keep offering your support and encouragement.
If you think your child or someone you know has Agoraphobia they should see their GP in the first instance. For more information see the NHS Agoraphobia overview page.
Author: Edward Herbert