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Classical Conditioning and Child Phobias

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Classical conditioning and child phobias

Classical conditioning is very common in our life. It happens everywhere on a daily basis, from infants smiling at their parents to toddlers being scared of thunderstorm. Classical conditioning is a form of associative learning which was first discovered by Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov in the early 20th century. Before learning took place, the dogs would reliably salivate (UCR) when given meat powder (UCS), but they gave no response to the ringing of a bell (neutral). Then Pavlov would always ring a bell just before he would present the dogs with some meat powder. Pretty soon, the dogs began to associate the sound of the bell with the impending presence of meat powder. As a result, they would begin to salivate (CR) as soon as they heard the bell (CS), even if it was not immediately followed by the meat powder (UCS). In other words, they learned that the bell was a reliable predictor of meat powder (Goldman, 2012).

Classical conditioning was later reinforced by John Watson and his assistant Rosalie Rayner with the “Little Albert” experiment in 1920. Watson and Rayner attempted to condition him to fear a white rat. This was done by presenting a white rat to Albert, followed by a loud clanging sound (of the hammer and steel bar) whenever Albert touched the animal. After seven pairings of the rat and noise (in two sessions, one week apart), Albert reacted with crying and avoidance when the rat was presented without the loud noise (Harris, 1979, p.152). In retrospective studies of phobic anamneses, direct traumatic conditioning experiences have been found to be responsible in the majority of cases involving simple phobias (Davey, 1992, p.53). A phobia is a type of anxiety disorder that causes an individual to experience extreme, irrational fear about a situation, living creature, place, or object (Nordqvist, 2017).

Children are afraid of certain things, such as the fear of fire, darkness and strangers, which are normal physiological reactions. However, kids are frightened by lightning and animals which are learned via classical conditioning. Once children realized lightning is always followed by loud thunder noises, they become scared as soon as they see lightning in the sky. When a neutral stimulus (lightning) is associated with an unconditional stimulus (thunder), it causes fear. This process leads to a fear which response to the previous neutral stimulus. It also transforms neutral stimulus into conditioned stimulus, neutral reaction becomes conditioned reaction. Adults make their children listen to them by making up stories. They tend to say something like “if you do not go to sleep, our neighbor’s cat will come to bite you.” After hearing it a couple of times, kids will be conditioned and afraid to get closed to any cat.

A study conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health recently reported that anxiety disorders—including fears, phobias, and panic attacks—are the number-one mental health problem in the country. The goal must be to help children overcome his fears so he will not become one of these statistics (Garber&Spizman, 1993). One of the best treatments for phobias is counter conditioning, which presents enjoyable activities with phobic stimulus at the same time. Since feeling relaxing is conflicting with feeling fearful, the relaxation response will counter the fear response. For example, in order to overcome the child's fear of rabbits and other furry objects, parents can use toys as pleasant stimulus. Put a rabbit in the cage and then put the cage away from the toys when the child is playing. As time goes, slowly move the cage closer to the child and release the rabbit from the cage. If the child is very resistant, do not force him, try a few more times, he will slowly adapt. Eventually, the child will not afraid of the rabbit any more, even when the rabbit comes to play with him. In this way, the joyful emotion associated with the game extends to the rabbit, so the fear of rabbits disappears. The child will then extend that positive mood to something that he was previously afraid of. In other words, the child has overcome the fear of furry by counter conditioning.

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