What are Phobias in Childhood?
Phobias in childhood are a type of specific anxiety.
Specific phobias are intense fears about particular situations, objects, or animals. Consider what kind of anxiety your child may be experiencing. Fears that are more generalized across several different situations are not phobias. Many children have some occasional fears, which is normal.
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Symptoms of Phobias in Childhood
- Worried thoughts: Saying, “There’s a monster under my bed!”
- Avoiding alone time: Extreme fears of being away from caregivers
- Specific fears: Becoming extremely worried when parents go to the basement or walk across the street
- Getting paralyzed: Refusing to go to school or go outside over fears of storms or the wind
- Sudden changes in behavior: Becoming unwilling to do fun things the child used to enjoy for fear of encountering the feared object
- Won’t go to bed: Struggling to sleep in their bedroom at night
If your otherwise happy child starts exhibiting these signs, they may have been exposed to something scary recently. Consider whether the news has featured recent murders, kidnapping, or violent crimes. Unfortunately, these news programs are part of our world.
If your child indicates a sudden fear after watching a recent event on television, you can help by listening carefully. Remind your child, “Although crimes do happen, these news programs do not make it more likely to happen to you. Your school and home are safe places to be. If you need help with your fears, you can come to your parents, teachers, or caregivers. We will keep you safe.” Sensationalized events in the news can do a lot of damage to our children without parents even knowing. Often, using direct and reassuring language can help your child navigate upsetting events in the news.
Common Childhood Fears
- Fear of the dark: Complaining of the dark and unable to sleep
- Fear of dogs: Fearing dogs so much that they will not go to the park
- Fear of spiders: Seeming to be unable to stop talking about spiders
- Fear of bugs: Showing intense fear of being bitten by a bug or stung by a bee
- Fear of elevators: Fearing riding the elevator, making you climb eight flights of stairs at the doctor’s office
- Fear of injections: Becoming inconsolable before receiving an immunization
- Fear of weather: Refusing to go outside if it is windy or raining? Having a deathly fear of tornadoes or storms
- Fear of natural disasters: Seeming obsessed over floods, fires, tsunamis, volcano eruptions, or the earth burning up in the sun
- Fear of separation: At certain young ages (8 months,18 months, and 24 months), it is typical for children to be afraid of separation from their parents. Babies are naturally resistant to separation from their parents. After the age of 2 or so, some children are still terrified of separation, which may result in a diagnosis of Separation Anxiety Disorder
- Fear of ghosts or monsters: Perhaps after watching a scary movie or youtube video, the child is terrified of monsters; perhaps checking under the bed or in the closet incessantly
Causes of Phobias in Children
Clinically, phobias are common in children. If you find yourself reorganizing your life to avoid flying because your child refuses to go on an airplane, your child may have a phobia. If you get the nasal spray flu shot, even though it can be less effective than the shot, to save peace of mind, your child may have a phobia of injections.
If you walk away from the park because there will be fewer dogs, because dogs mean your child will run away shrieking and running, your child has a phobia. A child with a phobia will have an extreme reaction, a tantrum, panic symptoms like hyperventilating, shaking, or sweating.
You will likely be able to see the fear visibly in your child. Anxious children often have wide eyes, cold, clammy hands, foot-tapping, hand wringing, and stiff posture. They may even be getting sick in the presence of the phobia, resulting in a tummy ache, chest pain, nausea, or headache.
Why are these phobias happening?
Generally, the child felt threatened or had a specific negative experience with the feared object. For example, a child who is afraid of the wind may remember when they had to go into the basement for hours over a tornado warning.
Or, a child who is afraid of dogs or snakes may have been threatened or attacked by an animal in the past. Some kids are simply scared of dogs because of the loud barking noise.
Other kids may be afraid of monsters or ghosts after watching scary movies, TV shows, or videos. Often, these fears seem ‘out of the blue’ because the parents may not be aware of the event that caused the phobia in the first place.
What To Do About Phobias in Children
Treatment includes gradual exposure paired with coping strategies, relaxation, and anxiety reduction. Having the help of a professional is often recommended, and research shows that phobias are relatively easy to treat, so that is the good news!
Gradual exposure treatment for phobias
The best-known treatment for phobias is ‘gradual exposure.’ Sometimes, parents can do this on their own with their child. If your child has a phobia that impacts day-to-day functioning, it may help to gradually expose your child to the feared stimuli. Allow their anxiety to remit, thus fighting that need to escape and avoid.
That is, if you show your child just a little bit of the feared item at a time, the anxiety will start to go down. You will want to reassure your child that they are safe and teach them to stay calm rather than running away or hiding. The more gradually and incrementally you introduce the feared item, the more likely this strategy will work.
What to do about fear of dogs
If your child fears dogs, first, you could read books about dogs and look at pictures while noticing your child’s anxiety level. Do this over several weeks, spacing out the books until your child can read the books without worrying. Then, watch a familiar dog from a distance without contact. Gradually move to getting closer and closer, making sure the “exposure” is safe and will not traumatize your child.
Work to let a familiar dog sniff your child and have them feel comfortable petting the animal. You don’t want a child approaching unfamiliar dogs. But, in public, you may want to be able to walk down the street without your child screaming and crying at the sight of an animal.
By exposing your child gradually to the feared object or animal, you may be able to reduce mild anxiety before it becomes more serious. This regular exposure to the feared object without escaping tends to ease anxiety over time. Your child may begin to see that they feel better after enduring the feared situation and finding that nothing terrible happened. If, however, the child is already experiencing extreme distress, seek out the services of a psychologist.
What to do about fear of the dark
Approach a fear of the dark similarly, with gradual exposure until your child is quite comfortable and relaxed. Start with the lights on, just a lamp, the night light, and so on. Working with a clinician who has expertise in this area can help. They can guide the speed and nature of these “exposures” (showing just a little of the scary thing) with “response prevention” (the child does not try to escape the scary thing).
If your child experiences fear and avoids the stimulus, it reinforces the phobia. They learn that getting away reduces their anxiety. That is, you don’t want your child to ‘run away’ from the feared item because they will keep doing so to avoid feeling anxious.
How to know if I am helping my child with phobias
Here is how to know if these strategies are working. If so, you will see that your child is less anxious when they are around their feared object or simulated situation. For example, your child may not love storms, but maybe now they can go outside for a short time on a breezy day. That is a sign of progress. You will know these ideas are working if your child is starting to feel calmer around the feared object. For example, your child can now sleep in their room with a nightlight and the bathroom door open. These are signs of progress. As noted above, phobias are relatively easy to treat with a bit of support.
When to Seek Help For a Phobia
The fears mentioned in this article are overwhelming and atypical. They are fears that are out of proportion or developmentally inappropriate for the child’s age. Specific fears are only a problem if they significantly impact daily functioning and the ability to enjoy life.
The gradual exposure technique mentioned above may need the support of a professional counselor or psychologist, particularly if the fear is severe and significant. Your child may begin to feel better after just 5-6 sessions with a therapist using gradual exposure strategies.
Fears that seem debilitating, persistent, or exhausting may represent an actual psychological symptom worthy of diagnosis and treatment. In the case of a phobia, a child is not generally anxious, just overwhelmingly afraid of something. This phobia often feels to parents like unreasonable fear that does not extend to other areas of life.
Example of a time to seek professional help
Your child may be so afraid of shots that everyone in the house dreads the annual doctor’s appointment. This child worries for months about the flu shot and often cries for hours or cannot sleep for fear of the shot. The fear leads to a refusal to go into the doctor’s office, a panic attack, or a meltdown at the thought. With therapy, your child can overcome this phobia of injections and experience the doctor’s office without that sense of dread. The good news is that phobias are generally temporary and highly treatable.
Further Resources and Professional Help for Phobias
- Psychotherapist or play therapist: to treat anxiety using exposure treatment in-vivo treatment (teaching your child to be exposed to the feared object and to slowly become calm and relaxed in the face of the object)
- School psychologist: to treat anxiety in the school setting, mainly if the fear is of something like storms that could crop up at school; to look at ways to adjust the setting to lessen anxiety like an extra support person during tornado drills
- Psychologist or neuropsychologist: to conduct a full assessment to look at symptoms in a mental health context if there seem to be issues such as significant and persistent anxiety
Similar Conditions to Phobias
- General anxiety: anxiety that occurs in many contexts; not necessarily just in the presence of one or a few feared stimuli
- Self-esteem: anxiety that occurs in more than a few situations and is related to the judgments of others. Prolonged anxiety and perception of failure lead to decreased self-esteem and can lead to depression
- Socializing problems or social anxiety: anxiety related to social deficits and trouble reading social cues
Book References on Phobias in Children
Culbert, Timothy & Kajander, Rebecca. (2007). Be the Boss of Your Stress (Be The Boss Of Your Body®).
Green, Andi (2011). Don’t Feed The WorryBug.
Huebner, Dawn & Matthews, Bonnie (2008). What to Do When You Dread Your Bed: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Problems With Sleep (What to Do Guides for Kids).
Huebner, D. (2005). What to do when you worry too much: A kid’s guide to overcoming anxiety.
Meiners, Cheri J. (2003). When I Feel Afraid (Learning to Get Along).
Peters, D.B. (2013). From worrier to warrior: A guide to conquering your fears.