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Does my child have germophobia?

Over the past year children have been exhorted to wear masks, wash their hands frequently, stop touching their faces, maintain a safe social distance from everyone, and avoid high-touch surfaces altogether.
The message underlying all these directives? Germs are dangerous.

Which is true. Some germs can indeed hurt you, and such measures can help protect you from getting sick. They have been necessary for all of us during the pandemic.

For some children though – especially those with anxiety or Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder – these constant reminders may have contributed to an unreasonable fear of germs, illness, and contamination.
This is germophobia, and there currently appears to be a rise in cases worldwide.

Phobias are marked by fear that is disproportionate to the actual threat. A child who washes their hands after using the toilet or before eating is showing a normal level of concern for cleanliness. A child who washes their hands frequently during the day, balks at using a public restroom, or who will not play with others for fear of contamination may be exhibiting signs of germophobia.

Signs of Germophobia
  • intense fear of germs and the resulting illness that may occur from exposure
  • constant worry and anxiety about being contaminated
  • avoiding situations that are perceived to pose the threat of contamination (ex. touching doorknobs, pressing elevator buttons, sharing toys or books with other children)
  • physical symptoms, such as a racing heart, sweating, restlessness, light-headedness, or upset stomach when confronted with situations where germs may be present
  • ritualistic behavior around cleaning and hand washing, where these actions must be performed in the same manner each time

Younger children, who may be unable to articulate their fear, may also display the following signs:

  • tantrums, crying, screaming
  • frequent complaints of physical illness/pain
  • sleeping problems
  • clinginess, refusing to leave parents
  • irritability or nervousness
What causes germophobia?

The pandemic has understandably raised fears about health and safety. We have all had to take a more rigorous approach to preventing disease transmission. But not all of us have developed an unreasonable fear of germs.

Several factors contribute to developing a phobia.

Family history– If you have a family member with a phobia or anxiety disorder, you are more likely to develop one yourself. However, the phobia may not be the same type.

A negative experience – Many people who develop phobias can trace it back to a specific traumatic experience that led them to fear germs.

Upbringing – How individuals are raised can influence to their beliefs about contamination and cleanliness, and can contribute to developing phobias. The pandemic, with its necessary emphasis on cleanliness, may be sufficient for some households to become overly vigilant and antiseptic. It is possible that an attitude of fear, rather than simply prevention, is being passed on to kids.

No matter what the cause of germophobia, the result is a very frightened child. Being distracted at school, missing opportunities to socialise, and simply being gripped by fear and panic interferes with all levels of wellness.

If your child is struggling with a fear of germs and contamination, contact the BFDC. We can help.