Fear is a normal emotion experienced by all children at some point in their lives, and it can keep children safe from danger and encourage them to exercise caution in potentially dangerous situations. However, there is a difference between normal childhood fears and phobias. If your child’s fear becomes persistent, intense, and starts to diminish their quality of life, it has likely become a phobia.
A phobia is defined as an intense, exaggerated fear towards a specific object or situation that is out of proportion to a real or imagined threat. When a fear becomes a phobia, a child will avoid the specific phobia, fearfully anticipate an encounter with the object or situation, and experience high levels of anxiety that disrupt their normal routines. Phobias can sometimes be linked to a stressful or frightening past event, but other times there is no discernible cause. Genetics and brain chemistry can also play a role in the development of certain phobias.
Common Childhood Fears
Some of the most common fears among children include:
- Being alone
- Enclosed spaces
- The dark
- Large animals
- Getting vaccines/immunizations
- Unfamiliar or loud noises (e.g. thunder, fireworks)
- Imaginary monsters
Although these fears are normal in children, there is the possibility that they can turn into phobias if they are ignored or left unchecked.
How To Help Your Child Overcome A Fear Or Phobia
When a child’s fear or phobia has become disruptive to their day-to-day life, it’s time for parents to implement support and guidance to help them learn to gradually manage their anxiety on their own.
- Ask Your Child To Describe Their Fear
Children don’t always have the words to explain what it is they’re afraid of, but it’s important for parents to know exactly what triggers them and why, so that they can try to help their child work through their fear. If you already know your child is afraid of big dogs, ask specific questions about their fear. For example: “What makes big dogs scary?” or “Is it just one dog you’re scared of, or all of them?”
- Offer Reassurance, But Don’t Dwell
It is good practice to validate your child’s feelings when they’re expressing their fear with phrases like, “I know a lot of kids your age get anxious about that,” or “That used to scare me when I was your age.” Set a 15 minute time limit for these discussions, since talking about the fear for any longer could prolong or reinforce your child’s anxiety. After offering reassurance, redirect the focus to ways that you can help your child work through their anxiety going forward.
- Help Your Child Take Small Steps
Although parents may be tempted to avoid their child’s triggers altogether, complete avoidance can actually reinforce their fear, making it even bigger and scarier. Devise an action plan that includes reasonable goals for your child to meet, and ask them what they think would help. For example, if your child is anxious about going to a new school, visit the school ahead of time, or have a playdate with a couple of their classmates.
- Give Positive Reinforcement
It can take time for children to overcome their fears, which is why it’s important to give them consistent encouragement for making progress. It can take several tries before they feel brave enough to confront their fear, such as sleeping through an entire night in their own bed. Telling them: “I’m proud of you for being brave,” and “You did so well today, let’s see if we can do it again tomorrow,” can go a long way in bolstering your child’s confidence and soothing their anxiety.
When To Talk To A Doctor About Your Child’s Phobia
Although most children can successfully work through their fears and phobias with support from their parents or by simply growing out of it, some kids become overwhelmed or paralyzed in different situations due to their phobia. If your child’s phobia is interfering with their ability to do normal things, it could indicate the presence of an anxiety disorder. You can use an observation tracker to help identify patterns in your child’s behavior.
Talk to your doctor if your child's fears:
- Continue past a normal age
- Cause tantrums
- Prevent your child from functioning normally (e.g. not going to school, playing with friends, sleeping alone)
- Give them intense separation anxiety
- Cause physical symptoms such as headaches, racing heart, dizziness
- Cause obsessive worrying and fixation
- Are brought up in conversation often, even when the trigger isn’t present
- Cause withdrawal, panic attacks, or compulsive behaviors
If your child meets any of the above criteria, talk to your pediatrician for a physical evaluation first. Health conditions such as heart arrhythmias, thyroid dysfunction, and certain medications can create or exacerbate symptoms of anxiety. If all physical problems are ruled out by a pediatrician, your child can then be referred for evaluation by a child psychiatrist or psychologist.
A child psychiatrist or psychologist is qualified to perform a thorough psychiatric evaluation and diagnose anxiety disorders in both children and adolescents. After an initial diagnosis, a mental health professional can begin to develop a treatment plan tailored to your child’s individual case. Early diagnosis is crucial when it comes to childhood and adolescent anxiety disorders. Living with an anxiety disorder for a prolonged period of time can shape your child’s behavior in the future. Left unchecked, mental illness can give way to a steady decline in emotional and mental health, social development, and academic achievement.
The team at Capital Area Pediatrics is equipped to evaluate, diagnose, and treat pediatric mental health disorders. We provide universal screening services and basic consultations regarding your child’s issues. If a referral is needed, we will gladly go over our mental health care coordination services, and help transition your family to the next stage of care. If you are concerned about your child’s mental health, call our office to set up an appointment. We are currently offering telemedicine visits for those who prefer to stay home, as well as touchless check-in to minimize the spread of COVID-19. You can also request an appointment online.