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I have dealt with two simple phobias in my lifetime, and both terrified me enough to significantly alter my behavior and well-being. One was a fear of sleeping at other people’s houses and one was a fear of vomiting. I will share about the fear of staying at other people’s houses because it’s a little bit more common for kids and teens.

When I was 8 I used to spend the night at Tracy Hall’s house. She was my best friend at the time. We spent hours imagining games, creating “newspapers,” and torturing our parents with plays we had written and acted in. One night I couldn’t fall asleep. Tracy always left Nickolodean on her TV throughout the night. I watched show after show. I saw reruns of all kinds of old programs where gak (sp?) was being dropped on families, Lucy and Desi were arguing, and whatever else you can think of. Eventually this not sleeping was making me anxious. I could’ve slept if the TV were off, but I was afraid to turn it off because Tracy (very bossy) had told me I wasn’t allowed to turn it off or she couldn’t sleep. When I went home the next morning I was an exhausted, emotional wreck.

The following weekend when I tried to sleep at Tracy’s I ended up calling my parents to go home. From then on it started happening no matter where I slept if they weren’t there too. It grew into an uncomfortable separation anxiety that was only quelled if I KNEW I could be home and in bed by 8:30pm.

There are two ways to overcome a simpe phobia. One is to rip off the band-aid, feel a flood of anxiety, and stick it out until the anxiety finally passes. The other is to face it gradually. I wish my parents had known about the gradual approach but after a few years of this fear, we went at it 100%. They told me when I decided to spend the night there would be no coming home no matter what. They made arrangements with a good family friend and sent me over. I cried, panicked, and had one of the worst nights of my life. Eventually morning dawned and I still remember how proud I was, “I’m over my fear of spending the night!”

How surprised I was when I went to stay at another friend’s house and I was afraid all over again. I couldn’t believe it! I was incredibly frustrated. My parents didn’t let me come home and I found it was a little easier to cope. It ultimately took 11 nights at other people’s houses before I didn’t experience anxiety any longer. If I went too long between sleep-overs the anxiety would start to creep in again. I had to inoculate myself by spending the night somewhere about once per month.

What I hope you can see from this post is that overcoming a simple phobia isn’t simple. I actually hate that term. It prevented me from staying at birthday sleepovers, sports team sleepovers, going to friends’ houses late in the evening, and prevented me from ever enjoying summer camp (although I still went).

When you or your child begins the process of facing a simple phobia you must be dogged about not backing down once you start the process. You have to be consistent and you have to do it many more times than you think. In this post I have given you the flooding approach, which is terrifying but effective. In the next post I will explain the gradual approach, which is much more gentle.

Helping teens grow and families improve connection,
Lauren Goodman, MS, MFT