Germophobia: How to Help Kids Who are Afraid of Germs
There is an enemy lurking behind every doorknob, every toilet seat, every handshake and kiss. There is a deathly illness behind every shared sip and every shared bite. When kids are afraid of germs they live their lives like this. They live in terror that their next touch, taste or wipe will be their last. Germophobia can paralyze children and rob them of a carefree childhood.
Germophobia can be a debilitating fear. So, debilitating that some kids can’t function without avoiding or washing throughout their day.
So how are you supposed to help your child who is afraid of germs?
[Scroll down to the bottom of the page to watch my Kids Youtube video on this topic]
Bubble him up in a contamination-free zone? Bathe him in antibacterial soap each night? Carry enough wet wipes to supply a small army?
The more you clean, wash and wipe down the worse the problem will get.
Unfortunately, when kids are afraid of germs you are on an endless loop of avoid, wash and repeat. The only way to stop the cycle of Germophobia is to get off.
So how are you supposed to do this when your child will scream bloody murder?
Teach Them About Anxiety or OCD
The first step in beating your enemy is understanding your enemy. All too often we skip the educational component of anxiety or OCD. Kids need to understand why they feel like they are going to die if a germ touches them. They need to fully understand why they are so deathly afraid of germs, but other people are not.
Teach Them About Germs
It can help for kids to realize two things. #1 germs aren’t all bad and #2 you can never avoid all germs.
Germs aren’t all bad…
I talk to kids about their immune system using the analogy that they have “fighters” inside of them. These Ninja fighters help fight off germs. They need exercise, they need practice.
Everyday we come into contact with germs all over the place. These germs teach our fighters how to beat those particular germs. When our fighters get some practice, they get stronger and smarter.
When we don’t allow our fighters to practice, they don’t know how to fight germs as well. They fall asleep on the job. So, allowing a few germs to naturally be introduced to our fighters isn’t such a bad thing.
Germs are everywhere…
Anxiety and OCD like us to believe that we have some semblance of control. We don’t. Germs are everywhere. They are on objects. They are in the air. They are unavoidable.
Our kids believe that they have the ability to avoid germs. Although it may seem counterintuitive, it is helpful to tell a kid who is afraid of germs that germs are everywhere. They cannot be avoided – and if they think they can, they are believing anxiety or OCD’s lies.
Model Not Being Afraid of Germs
If you are pouring half a bottle of antibacterial soap on your hands a million times a day you aren’t helping. You can’t tell your kid to not be afraid of germs as you are literally bathing in antibacterial soap.
Model healthy, appropriate behavior for your child.
When kids are afraid of germs I tell parents to dial back the talk of germs in general. You don’t need to remind a kid to not touch something or to wash their hands when that is their anxiety theme already.
Sometimes making a list of when it is appropriate to wash hands can help.
I usually tell kids with an acute fear of germs they can wash their hands after only these three things:
1. After going to the bathroom
2. Before eating
3. When there is literally something on their hands (dirt, food, sticky material)
Anxiety and OCD can give kids a skewed perspective on reality, so these concrete rules can help.
Set Up Exposure Challenges to Conquer Germophobia
Hopefully your child is seeing a therapist who specializes in anxiety or OCD. If so, they might already be having you do exposure challenges.
ERP (Exposure Response Prevention) is the only evidenced-based therapy approach for OCD and is highly effective in both anxiety and OCD issues.
You want to learn all you can about ERP and how to do it with your child. You can learn more here.
Let Me Help
Lastly, you want to empower your child to work on their own issues. After all this is their journey, not yours. If your child doesn’t want to work on their fear of germs, you won’t have much luck making progress.
I made a Kids Youtube video to talk to kids directly about their fear of germs. You can watch it below:
Do you know someone who is raising a child who is afraid of germs? Send them this article and video!