Fears and Phobias: How Do You Tell the Difference?
Shadows in the dark, monsters under the bed, spiders in the closet. All children have fears. Some fears are helpful, such as being wary of strangers or the fear of being separated from parents. Fears like these actually prevent a child from taking unnecessary risks, such as running off in a mall or getting into a strange car. But when does a normal childhood fear turn into a debilitating phobia?
Here are some of the more common fears children experience:
- 0 to 2 years: Babies are usually afraid of loud noises, strangers, separation from parents, and large objects.
- 3 to 6 years: Younger children experience fears of things not based in reality, such as ghosts and monsters. They may also be afraid of the dark, sleeping alone and thunderstorms.
- 7 to 12 years: This age group experiences fears of real things that may happen to them, such as getting sick and dying, losing a loved one or natural disasters.
The secret to resolving these fears is to overcome them. Here are a few guidelines to help ease your child’s anxieties:
- Understand that the fear is very real for your child — even if it sounds silly to you. Talk to your child about the fear. (“Have you ever seen any snakes in your room? How would they get in?”). Often words can take the power away from your child’s negative feelings. Remember, don’t belittle the fear or tell them it is ridiculous.
- Don’t give in to the fear; it will only reinforce your child’s feelings. Instead, gently approach the thing (dog) or situation (thunderstorm) with your child and offer gentle support throughout.
- Teach them how to cope. Help them give positive messages to themselves, such as “I can do this!” “I can walk past that dog,” or “I can sleep alone in my room” when they are feeling anxious. Offer relaxation techniques like deep breathing and visualization. Give them the tools to gain power over the fear.
If your child settles down after a few minutes of calm reassurance from you, (and perhaps a few well-placed night lights) there is nothing to be concerned about. She will most likely grow out of her fears. However, if the fears persist, they can become more intense and problematic for your child. Here are some signs that your child’s fear has become a phobia:
- If the fear seems irrational and long-lasting
- If the fear reaches a level that overwhelms her or causes her to avoid certain activities, such as going to school, going outside or playing with friends
- If the fear disrupts sleep
- If the fear results in compulsive behaviors
Diagnosis and treatment
A qualified mental health professional usually diagnoses anxiety disorders in children or adolescents following a comprehensive psychiatric evaluation. If you see signs of severe anxiety in your child or teen, you can help by seeking an evaluation and treatment as early as possible. After an evaluation, your doctor may recommend counseling or behavioral therapy. Some children also benefit from medication.
Reviewed by: Patrick S. Pasquariello Jr., MD
Date: Aug. 2012