The media has been blasting the screen with “back-to-school” commercials since the 4th of July. With more than half a summer left, most kids thought the ads were funny. But for some children the commercials sparked panic attacks. It wasn’t that they just dislike the loss of summer freedom and the regimentation of classes; they literally dreaded the return to school with a heart-stopping fear.

For these children a school building is a cage, a place where they feel trapped and vulnerable.

They suffer from a form of agoraphobia. The word itself comes from the Greek meaning “fear of the market place.” While most commonly known as the phobia that prevents people from leaving the safety of their homes, mental health professionals define it as the phobia that creates a fear of being trapped in a building or situation with little hope of escape. People with this phobia truly suffer from a feeling of being trapped without exit.

All of us can remember a place or places where we felt so uncomfortable that we literally defined it as being trapped. We dismiss it as a brief panic attack and usually forget about it because we don’t suffer from the phobia. But the person who suffers from agoraphobia can’t forget the panic and fear.

Many adults, past and present, were agoraphobics. Sigmund Freud was a victim and used visualization of the outdoors as a means of coping. Thomas Jefferson left doors in buildings slightly ajar to deal with a “penned in” feeling.

Barbra Streisand suffers from it as does Donny Osmond. The actor Judi Dench leaves her handbag near a doorway of any building she is in as an assurance that she can walk out at will. I myself leave windows open at home and seek out exits and windows in any building I enter.

But we are adults and have learned to deal with the feelings of panic in our own way; performing little mind tricks to help us cope. For a child, it is next to impossible to first rationalize, and then make accommodations for their fears.

How can parents help? One way to help is to take your children’s fears seriously. Don’t dismiss fears as something silly or say they will outgrow them. Discuss their fears and let them know you understand and are willing to help. Research the phobia together and talk about what it means and how your child feels. Talk about famous people who share this phobia and how they deal with it.

Don’t be afraid to seek professional help. Sometimes a child derives a feeling of safety just knowing that there is a certain place they can go to where their fears are understood.

Do let the principal, teachers, and medical officer at your child’s school know about the situation but make sure they know this information is in strictest confidence. Advise them that any breach of confidence on their part will not be taken lightly on yours.

Let your child know that you, or another understanding adult, can be reached at any time during the day. It may be good for your child to call you at lunch or recess.

Be supportive and understanding. With help and guidance your children will be able to understand and deal with their fears.

© 2011 Kristen Houghton

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