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Childhood Phobias

A friend of mine with a young child recently told me how, every night, he had to do a “monster check”. Before his daughter could settle down to sleep, he had to look under her bed for lurking monsters. Only after he declared the room monster-free could bedtime proceed.

Such childhood fears are common. They are called transient fears, as they come and go as children age.

Phobias are different from transient fears. First, they are persistent, lasting six months or longer. Secondly – and more importantly – phobias inspire so much terror that they interfere with daily activities, school life, family relationships and friendships. 

Common Childhood Phobias

Approximately one in thirty children will develop a phobia. Phobias tend to begin in early- to mid-childhood, with the average age-of-onset being about 7 years old.

It is possible for intense fears to develop earlier, especially if a child has an adverse experience at a young age. It is easy to understand how a three-year-old bitten by a big dog may develop an outsized and persistent fear of dogs.

Some common childhood phobias include:

  • animals, such as dogs or snakes
  • blood
  • the dark
  • enclosed spaces
  • flying
  • having a parent, sibling, or pet get sick or hurt
  • heights
  • insects and spiders
  • needles (“getting shots” at the doctor’s office)
  • thunder and lightning, fireworks

Less common childhood phobias include:

  • vomiting
  • getting dirty
  • bathing
  • balloons, and popping
  • vacuum cleaners
  • toilets
  • clowns
  • dentists

It is not uncommon that children have more than one phobia. 

Signs and Symptoms of Phobias

Every person is different in how they respond to intense fear, even the “unreasonable” fear that comes with phobias. Children may scream, cry, cower, run away and hide from the objects of their phobias. Other common signs of intense fear include:

  • increased heart rate
  • rapid breathing, or feeling short of breath
  • trembling or shaking
  • sweating profusely
  • upset stomach
  • feeling dizzy or faint
  • chest pain
  • numbness
  • feeling like you are “going crazy”
  • fear of dying

The above symptoms are also the same as those associated with panic attacks. They can point to other issues as well, so if your child is experiencing these symptoms, be sure to see a healthcare provider to rule out any physical problems.

What Parents Can Do

Never Push
Parents should never try to push a child towards a feared object or situation. It will only serve to further traumatise the child and create distrust of the parent.

Reassure and Comfort
A frightened child should be reassured and comforted. However, parents should be careful not to shower the child with attention, unwittingly reinforcing the behaviour. Scary situations should not be universally avoided either – the phobia should not be allowed to control everyone’s life. 

Offer Up Reasoning
As children get older and become more capable of reasoning, it can be helpful to explain why their fear is illogical. Parents should not lecture children every time the phobia is present, instead, a loving reminder such as, “Remember what we talked about?” is sufficient. The information is meant to serve as a helpful tool older children can employ to manage their fear where possible.

Check in with Teens
Teenagers can be adept at hiding their phobias. They do so through avoidance and redirection, giving excuses that do not reveal their true fear. Instead of saying, “I am really afraid of cats”, they say “Sorry, I can’t come over, I am seriously allergic to cats.” Teens are less likely to confide in parents about their fears. For this reason, many older children do not receive the support they need to address phobias.

Some simple phobias may be “treated” at home with gradual, gentle exposure. For example, children frightened of spiders may start by looking at cartoon pictures of spiders, then move on to photographs, and then watching short educational videos about spiders. With time and patience, this approach can be very effective. Other phobias may require help from a mental health professional.

Be selective
Some phobias require swift intervention. A phobia of bathing, dogs, car rides, and visits to the doctor or dentist all need to be addressed sooner rather than later. However, if your child has a fear of something that occurs rarely in their day-to-day experience – for example, bears – you may not need to rush into getting treatment.

Get help
Carmen Ip specialises in treating childhood phobias. Contact the BFDC to schedule a free 20-minute consultation with her to discuss your concerns at 2869 1962.