Written by: Cally Worden
All children experience fears and anxieties, but for some the feelings can become so intense they can turn into a phobia.
What is the Difference Between a Fear and a Phobia?
Childhood fears will come and go, often disappearing for several years before resurfacing again. Your child may fear something one day and feel fine about it the next. Triggers for fears vary depending on each child, but can be anything from a bad dream or a scary TV show, to illness or the mimicking of a fear expressed by their parents (‘Eeek! I Hate spiders!’). A traumatic event or significant change in family circumstances can also cause fears to surface in young children.
A phobia is a fear that triggers intense feelings of anxiety, such that they become physically or mentally impaired by their phobia in some way. One of the best examples of this in children is when a child develops a fear of going to school. If this fear is not addressed it can lead to a phobia about going to school, resulting in a child refusing to leave the house each morning, or being physically sick at the prospect.
The Effects of Anxiety
Fears and phobias are an expression of anxiety. Experiencing this common human trait in moderation helps us to learn, motivates us, and raises our levels of vigilance. All good, healthy stuff. In excess however, anxiety can become crippling. It releases adrenaline and other chemicals into our body. When these are produced to excess, driven by intense fear or a phobic reaction, the body responds with atavistic ‘Fight or Flight’ reactions against a perceived enemy. The heart-rate quickens, you start to sweat, you may tremble or feel light-headed and you may experience shortness of breath.
Adults experiencing extreme fear responses are generally aware that their reactions are irrational, but are powerless to control them. In children, this level of self-awareness has yet to develop. These reactions they are experiencing can feel terrifying in themselves, often creating a vicious circle of fear that includes the fear of the reaction itself.
What Types of Phobia are Common in Children?
Little kids often experience many different fears at once. The world is a big, new, scary place to them, they may develop fears relating to, among many other things:
- Animals, monsters, ghosts
- The dark, loud noises
- Being left alone, bath time, toilets, bed wetting
- Death, injury
- And the more obscure – vacuum cleaners, hairdressers, wheelchairs
Children between the ages of 3 and 6 will often confuse fantasy with reality. Most fears will eventually resolve themselves with a little patience and support from Mum and Dad.
What Parents can do to Help
When a child’s fear appears to become more intense and seems at risk of developing into a phobia, there are several things parents can do to try and help:
Exposure tactics – this is not about forcing your child into a situation they find uncomfortable, but rather helping them to address to irrationality of it. When my daughter was 4 she was stung by a bee, twice, while in the car. For around six months after that she would run into the house sobbing whenever she heard a ‘buzz’ outdoors, she would then refuse to go back outside. We helped her to get over this by making the outside a place she REALLY wanted to be. ‘Let’s eat ice creams on the grass!’, or ‘Come and make mud pies in the sandpit!’. Slowly, she overcame her fear
Cognitive Behaviour Therapy – this is a formal version of the tactic we applied with our daughter. In CBT the phobia is addressed by gentle and progressively more extreme exposure to the subject of the phobia
Talking Therapy – little children are unlikely to respond well to talking therapy, but older kids can benefit enormously, once they find a therapist they relate to and trust
Play Therapy – young kids often don’t have the words or ability to express their fears out loud. Providing alternative ways for them to express their fears can help them to become more comfortable. Colouring pictures that show the fear object, or role playing with toys, are both very effective ways of coaxing a child through a phobia.