Is Your Child a Germaphobe? How to Help Them Cope

Published October 27, 2021
Child washing their hands

Parents are responsible for teaching their children basic hygiene practices. Brush your teeth, take a shower, and steer clear of germs. Most families strike a healthy balance when it comes to hygiene; allowing room for getting dirty and exploring, while helping kids understand that certain practices regarding cleanliness are expected of them. In some cases, kids take the concept of good hygiene to a whole different level, fixating on pristine cleanliness and avoiding germs at all costs. When this happens, parents may begin to wonder if they are raising a germaphobe.

What Is a Germaphobe?

By definition, a germaphobe is someone overly concerned with the potential dangers of exposure to germs. Germaphobes often believe that when they come into contact with a surface, they have immediately picked up a virus or bacteria and are now at significant risk of becoming ill. Hence, they must clean themselves and said surfaces immediately. An example of a germaphobe might be someone who obsessively washes their hands, regardless of whether they are dirty. As with other phobias, the person experiencing germaphobia has a response that is disproportionate to an actual threat. They cannot discern that the risk of danger is low.

Do Some Kids Have a Predisposition to Germaphobic Behaviors?

It is possible that children with anxiety could be at greater risk for developing germaphobia and related behaviors. Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is also closely associated with this particular phobia. Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a specific type of anxiety that convinces people to perform certain rituals repeatedly to immediately reduce the anxiety and distress they are feeling. In the Western world, about one-quarter to one-third of people with OCD experience some level of contamination fear, accompanied by correlating contamination fear rituals, such as cleaning compulsions or avoidance rituals.

Sign and Symptoms of Germaphobia in Kids

What does germaphobia look like in children? Signs your child might be more than simply diligent about washing their hands include:

  • An association with public places being germy, and because of this, they avoid those places
  • Refusal to touch typical surfaces, handles, or buttons
  • Desire to cover things in plastic or wear gloves
  • Exhibits emotional and physical distress when forced into a public space
  • Worry and rituals regarding cleanliness are impeding daily life

Some of the more common symptoms of germaphobia include:

  • Excessive washing of hands, sometimes to the point of raw skin
  • Intense fear and terror over contracting an illness and becoming sick
  • Physical symptoms like rapid heartbeat, sweating, and upset stomach
  • Persistent worry about germs that won't or can't be dismissed

Helping Kids Overcome a Fear of Germs

Girl having trustful conversation with mother

Suppose you have noticed that your child is exhibiting the signs and symptoms of germaphobia. In that case, you will then want to know whether this is something you can help them through on your own, or if their condition requires professional assistance from a noted therapist with experience in the fields of anxiety and OCD. Anytime you question something as crucial as a child's mental health, it is best to get your doctor and possibly a therapist's take on the situation. You never want to treat a child for something you merely suspect. For anyone to benefit from therapeutic strategies, they must first be treated for the correct disorder.

Germs are NOT Necessarily the Enemy

When helping a child face their germaphobia, you first want to explain that not all germs are the enemy. You can explain to your child that inside of their body are tiny little "fighters" that attack germs that enter the body. These "fighting" helpers cannot grow more robust and protect them until they get a bit of fighting practice, and the only way to do that is to allow germs to enter your person and let your immune system stretch its legs, so to speak.

Germs are helpful in this way because when kids are exposed to them, they can strengthen their immune system, creating a layer of protection. Encourage children to visualize little fighters inside of their body growing stronger each time they fight an intruding virus. Next, help kids visualize these fighters banning together to create a strong and safe force field known as their immune system.

Explain to your kids that, try as they might, there is no avoiding all germs. Kids with this disorder grow to believe that they can control their environment to a degree where no germs ever touch their person. This can never be the case, as germs are everywhere. Coming to terms with this reality is an essential fact for children to accept.

Teaching Kids Healthy Hygiene Practices

We teach children to wash their hands when they come indoors after being in public spaces and before eating a meal. Washing hands in these instances is a healthy hygiene practice. Children who wash their hands repeatedly or believe they must wash their hands a specific number of times per day or per hour have developed an unhealthy hygiene practice.

When kids dine in a restaurant, they may wash their hands before eating and perhaps after their meal as well. This is also a standard hygiene practice. Children who refuse to touch a surface in a restaurant or refuse to eat there because they have no control over the preparation of their food have developed an unhealthy practice related to germaphobia.

Teach children what is considered healthy hygiene. Give children specific windows and situations of time where handwashing is acceptable. Teach them to wash their hands with soap and warm water for no more than one minute.

Model the Behaviors You Want to See in Your Kids

Parents need to model the behaviors that they hope to see in their children. Be sure that you are also washing your hands at acceptable times. Think about how you approach cleanliness and germs. Are you constantly telling your child to sanitize or wash, or are you giving out continuous reminders to avoid certain surfaces because they are dirty or gross? Parents should engage in some self-reflection to ensure they are not contributing to their child's existing fear of germs.

Introducing Useful Techniques

When a child is fighting a phobia, different techniques can help them work through their intense fear. Utilize techniques to supplement any work that a doctor or a therapist is doing to help your child. Your techniques are not there to replace professional help, and all methods being used should be reviewed and approved by a professional.

Practice Relaxation Techniques

Mother and daughter meditating

Teach your child relaxation techniques that might help quell the physical symptoms that often accompany anxiety. Practice deep breathing as well as self-talk to help them connect with their "regular brain" and not their "anxious brain." The anxious brain is the one with the thoughts that convince a child they are in imminent danger. The regular brain reminds them that not all germs hurt, millions of germs come into contact with millions of people each day, and nothing bad transpires. Essentially, you are teaching your child to listen to their own rational thinking instead of irrational thinking.

You can also introduce mediation practices, making moments of calm and connection part of a child's daily routine. Start with small pockets of time, a few minutes only, and model how to meditate.

Facing Fears and Working Through Them

Avoidance is not your friend in this case, and the more you avoid situations out of fear, the more the fear will grow. Facing fear is a difficult thing for most people. Facing a phobia is exponentially more challenging and uncomfortable because of the heightened sense of danger someone with a phobia experiences. Support your child when they must face a fear related to germs. Remember to use rational talk with the "regular brain" as well as relaxation techniques.

Work Towards Reduction

Children with germaphobia will wash their hands excessively to reduce the number of germs they come into contact with. Take a gauge at how many times your child is washing their hands. Work to reduce the number of washes per day, starting small. When children feel anxious over not participating in their washing ritual, work through relaxation techniques with them, encourage them to verbalize their thoughts and feelings and try to occupy them with fun activities that help take their mind off of their phobia.

Knowing When to Get Help

Any time you think something is amiss with your child, you will want to jump right in and get to fixing it. While letting something like a phobia fester is never the way to go, rushing in to conquer it can also be detrimental. If you suspect your child is struggling with severe anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or germaphobia, ask a pediatrician for their opinion. They can assess your child and recommend ways to help your child work toward stable mental health.

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Is Your Child a Germaphobe? How to Help Them Cope