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Fears & Phobias in Children: How Parents Can Help

As children grow and explore the world around them, facing new experiences and challenges, occasional fears are common.

Common childhood fears

A fear of being alone in the dark, for example, is a common childhood fear. So is a fear of animals, such as large barking dogs. Some children are afraid of fires, high places or thunderstorms. Others, conscious of media images, are concerned about war or terrorism. If there has been a recent serious illness or death in the family, they may become anxious about the health of those around them.

Your child's fears may come and go. Most childhood fears are mild. But even when they get worse, with reassurance and support, they generally go away on their own after a while.

How parents can help ease their child's fears

Here are some suggestions that many parents find useful to help their children with fears.

What to do:

  • Talk with your child about their anxieties, and be sympathetic. Explain to them that many children have fears, but with your support they can learn to overcome them.

  • Monitor your child's media use. This includes exposure to frightening images in movies, online videos and violent video games. Make sure media is age-appropriate. It also a good idea to create a family media plan.

What to avoid doing:

  • Do not belittle or ridicule your child's fears, particularly in front of their peers.

  • Do not try to pressure your child into being brave. It will take time for them to confront and gradually move beyond their anxieties.

When does fear becomes a phobia?
Sometimes, however, fears can become so extreme, persistent and focused that they develop into phobias.

Phobiaswhich are strong and irrational fearscan significantly interfere with a child's usual daily activities. For example, a 6-year-old's phobia about dogs might make them so panicky that they refuse to go outdoors at all because there could be a dog there. A 10-year-old child might become so terrified about news reports of a serial killer that they insist on sleeping with his parents at night.

Social phobias

Some children develop phobias about the people they meet in their everyday lives. This severe shyness can keep them from making friends at school and relating to most adults, especially strangers. They might consciously avoid social situations like birthday parties, club meetings or sports practices. They may find it difficult to talk comfortably with anyone except their immediate family.

Separation anxiety is also common in children. Sometimes this fear can intensify when the family moves to a new neighborhood or starts a new childcare setting. These children might become afraid of going to summer camp or even attending school. Their phobias can cause physical symptoms like headaches or stomach pains.

Treatment for childhood fears & phobias

Fortunately, most phobias are quite treatable. If your child's anxieties persist and interfere with their enjoyment of day-to-day life, they might benefit from meeting with a child psychiatrist or psychologist who specializes in treating phobias.

Behavioral therapy

As part of the treatment plan for phobias, many therapists suggest exposing your child to the source of their anxiety in small, nonthreatening doses.

Under a therapist's guidance, a child who is afraid of dogs might begin by talking about this fear and by looking at photos or videos of dogs. Next, they might watch a neighborhood dog from behind the safety of a window. Then, with a parent or a therapist at their side, they might spend a few minutes in the same room with a friendly, gentle puppy. Eventually they will find themselves able to pet the dog. Over time, they will ease into situations with larger, unfamiliar dogs.

This gradual process is called desensitization, meaning that your child will become a little less sensitive to the source of their fear each time they confront it. Ultimately, your child will no longer feel the need to avoid the situation that has been the basis of their phobia.

Sometimes psychotherapy can also help children become more self-assured and less fearful. Breathing and relaxation exercises can help children in stressful circumstances too.

Behavior therapy is the first line of treatment of phobias. In rare cases, where behavioral therapy isn't helping enough, your child's doctor may recommend medications as art of the treatment program. This would be in addition to the behavioral therapy, and not as the sole therapeutic tool. These drugs may include antidepressants, which are designed to ease the anxiety and panic that often underlie these problems.

More information

Last Updated
Adapted from Caring for Your School-Age Child: Ages 5 to 12, 3rd edition (Copyright © 2018 American Academy of Pediatrics)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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