An excessive anxiety towards germs is a common ailment in children and adults alike. They also frequently go together: Kids typically pick up these fears from adults, though occasionally they might develop them all on their own.
Dealing with fear and anxiety over germs
One of the things that makes germophobia so difficult to overcome is that those afflicted don’t believe they are being irrational. After all, germs are bad, aren’t they? It’s a fear that on the surface seems entirely justified.
But the excessive fears typical of germophobia are bad for 2 important reasons:
- The world is awash in germs, so the idea of trying to avoid contact with germs is sort of like trying to protect yourself from air. It’s a loosing battle based upon an absurd notion.
- This phobia often becomes an obsession, disrupting a person’s life and causing constant stress and anxiety. It creates worries about sitting, eating, or touching just about any surface. It leads to anxiety about touching others, having people touch them, and can even induce a panic when someone gets too close. Germophobia can be one of the most disabling fears of all, making it impossible for a person to function normally in society.
Helping children overcome a fear of germs
A) Rethinking the role of germs
The first step involves helping people develop a more realistic, rational approach towards germs.
- Most germs are either benign or helpful. If you were completely bacteria-free, you’d be dead within 2 weeks. There are thousands of different species of bacteria that humans have formed a symbiotic relationship with. Not only are most bacteria harmless, but many perform important functions that we couldn’t live without. They digest our food, keep our skin from cracking, or even protect us against other microscopic pests.
- Your body is awash in bacteria, both inside and out. In fact, there are 10-times more bacterial cells inhabiting your body than human cells! This fact makes the idea of meticulously trying to guard our body against germs seem rather silly. You ARE germs!
- The collection of germs and bacteria that live on and inside each of us is referred to as our microbiome. Like the human genome, the microbiome plays an important role in our health. Doctors are now discovering that one of the primary causes of many health problems is, get this, a lack of germs.
In fact, if you really want to freak a germophobe out, give them this mental image: In certain cases, doctors now administer “fecal transplants” (exactly as gross as it sounds) to treat digestive issues. This is because such a process will re-colonize a person’s intestinal tract with helpful bacteria that they are lacking, which can cure them of illness or disease.
- Farm kids have more robust immune systems, fewer allergies, less asthma, and are overall healthier than city kids. The reason? All those germs they’re exposed to in the dirt.
- So rather than thinking of your body as something separate from the world that must be kept sterile, you should try to imagine it more like a vibrant garden. Occasionally a few weeds might get in, but we need the garden.
B) Give germs a PR makeover
With kids, help them reimagine germs as cute and cuddly. Tell them to imagine their microbiome like an army of tiny puppies that snuggle up close and guard our body and help it do its job. Do art projects with glitter and pink pom poms to create germ-models that are pretty and appealing rather than threatening.
C) Using exposure therapy to treat a fear of germs
For people with reasonably severe germophobia, exposure therapy is often used to build up their tolerance. This may involve, for example, getting a person to touch a dirty rag and then preventing them from washing their hands right away. Therefore they build up their tolerance for germ-anxiety and can see that nothing terrible happens when they don’t immediately react.
Exposure therapy can be offered by a professional therapist in a clinical setting, but it can also be applied by parents at home. (Though it generally goes smoother when someone other than a parent helps.) The basic premise is simple: Getting a child to touch something she would normally avoid because of germs, then restricting hand washing or other cleansing behaviors immediately afterwards, progressively working up to more germ-riddled items and longer refrain times afterwards where she is not allowed to clean herself. Here are some ideas for items to use, listed in order from the least anxiety provoking to those that tend to be the most:
- Sticking their hands in sand, dirt, or mud
- Used beach or bath towel
- Long hug or touching another’s skin
- Touching a dirty rag or washcloth
- Squeezing that rag or washcloth with both hands
- Dirty sock
When conducting such exposure therapy sessions in a home setting, you might want to utilize a small reward to encourage a child’s participation. Initially it can be some small treat afterwards if they cooperate, and then in subsequent sessions reward them for outperforming their prior marks in terms of what they touch or how long they can stay calm afterwards without washing their hands.
D) Additional activities to help kids conquer their fear of germs
Here are a couple of other activities that can reduce a child’s fear of germs:
- Out of a child’s sight, fill two water bottles with tap water, labeling one “clean” and the other “dirty” or “contaminated.” Then present them to a child and have them drink from each. People are naturally reluctant to drink from the one labeled dirty, even though the water may look exactly the same. After they take a sip of each (often after great protest), let them in on the ruse. Then talk about much of their fear over germs is mental like this, based on an idea in their head rather than an actual threat.
- A similar lesson can be taught playing blindfold games. Cover a child’s eyes so that they can’t see a thing, then sit them down at a table, arms placed out in front of them. One by one, place an object in their hand to explore. Rotate between “friendly” things (their stuffed animal, a piece of their clothing, toys, and so on) and anxiety-provoking ones. Give them 1 minute to explore each item and try to guess what it is, then uncover their eyes. They’ll recoil at the fact of having touched an item that they view as germy, but they’ll also start to become suspicious of the friendly ones until their eyes are uncovered. Once again, the idea is to help them see their fears as more mental than physical.
E) Promote a healthy fear of germs
Try to redirect this anxiety towards hypervigilance in appropriate ways; taking precautionary steps when someone is sick, for example. Or talking about dangerous bacteria in regards to food safety. This allows you to focus their fears toward what really matters while reducing the disruption germ anxiety causes in daily life.
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