Published on in Health Tip of the Week
Almost everyone is afraid of something and kids are no exception. Younger children may be afraid of the dark or worry about being separated from parents. Adolescents may worry about their grades, being accepted by peers or embarrassing themselves. Even adults can have deep-seated, yet irrational phobias of common things like heights, snakes, planes or enclosed spaces, just to name a few.
While some fear is normal and healthy for self-preservation, obsessive or irrational fears are not. So, how can parents tell the difference? And what can you do to help your children if you see them becoming overwhelmed?
Kavita Tahilani, PhD, and John D. Herrington, PhD, two psychologists at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), share their insights about common childhood fears, how to recognize rational vs. irrational fears, strategies to fight these fears, and when to seek help if fear becomes persistent or interferes with typical childhood activities.
Common childhood fears
What children fear often depends on their age and level of development. Common fears by age include:
- Babies (age 0-2) typically fear strangers, unfamiliar settings and loud noises.
- Toddlers (age 2-4) may express fears related to the dark, thunder, shadows, being separated from parents, changes to routine, or fears related to potty training (which is more than you’d think).
- Children (age 5-7) have developed more active imaginations. They often are scared of bad dreams, disappointing parents/teachers, and getting sick or hurt. This is often when kids begin to worry about monsters in their closets or under their beds.
- Older children (age 7+) begin to worry about things beyond their immediate circle. They may learn about a natural disaster or a mass shooting and worry it will happen nearby or affect someone they love. They worry about loss (a parent or grandparent dying, for example), potential threats from real things like spiders, snakes or a fall, and imagined threats from things such as witches, ghosts or vampires.
The origins of childhood fears vary, but the most stubborn and intractable fears often stem from uncomfortable or painful personal experiences, second-hand experiences your child witnessed, or an overactive imagination that focuses on “worst-case scenario” thinking.
Children have expansive imaginations and are very susceptible to suggestion. What they can see, hear, taste, touch and smell – and even what they can’t – can be sources of uncertainty and worry. Parents can help children by teaching them the difference between rational and irrational fears, and how to address each.
Rational vs. irrational fears
Every child’s fear is real to them – even if it seems silly or irrational to a parent. You can help your child using these four tools.
- Acknowledge their fear and validate their feelings. They feel the way they do – even if it doesn’t make logical sense – but that feeling needs to be addressed in order to get over it.
- Gather facts and information. Educate your child about what they are worried about, share statistics and probabilities, and dispel any myths they may have. For example, if your child is afraid of dogs, you can get statistics about the percentage of dog bites in your area; teach them how to act around a dog they don’t know (ignore it vs. running away), and where to get help/who to seek out if they encounter an uncomfortable situation with a dog.
- Commit to working on the problem together. Parents can model emotional regulation to help their children remain calmer when faced with their fear.
- Offer quiet support by sitting with your child or teen during or after a challenging experience. Younger children may want a hug, while teens may simply want you close – in case they want to talk.
Strategies to fight fear
There are many tools to disrupt the cycle of fear, anxiety, worry and avoidance. CHOP clinicians recommend parents consider their child’s age and development before deciding which strategy to employ. Don’t get discouraged if one way doesn’t work for your child – that’s why there are so many options; different tactics work for different kids and at different points in their lives.
Common distraction techniques
- Deep breathing or belly breathing. Encourage your child to breathe in, visualize a cake with candles in front of them and breath out deeply. Repeat as needed.
- Do a grounding activity. One popular exercise is 54321. Name five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell and one thing you can taste. By activating all five of your child’s senses, they can effectively pull themselves away from whatever irrational fear spiral they started on and focus on the present. Repeat as needed.
- Pump up playlist. Create an energetic or soothing soundtrack of 5-15 songs your child can play on their phone or digital device when they are feeling stressed or anxious thoughts begin to spiral.
- Small fidget toys like spinners and poppers keep fingers busy and force your child to focus their attention on the toy instead of their fear.
- Use lotion and aromatherapy. Encourage your child to smell the lotion before slathering it on. Feel the lotion seep into the skin. Inhale its scent. Focus on the sensation of self-soothing. Lavender, in particular, has been used to soothe anxiety in children and teens.
Take action techniques
- Become an anxiety detective. Instead of distracting your child from their fear, encourage them to examine it more fully. Critically evaluate their fear. What’s the probability of something bad happening? What’s the emotional cost of avoiding it? Is the fear useful or helpful? Most people with anxiety overinflate the probability of something bad happening and underestimate the cost of avoiding the item forever.
- Baby steps and exposure therapy. If your child is willing to try to work through their fear, go slowly. Exposure therapy for a child afraid of water, for example, may include dipping their toes in a pool one day, then building up over days or week to submerge their feet, then lower legs, then upper legs, etc. At each step, it’s important for parents to be supportive and praise the child’s efforts. By giving your child an emotional pat on the back, you help them build confidence and become more comfortable with a task that seemed impossible to them weeks or months before. Stay with your child at each step; they need your steady influence to make it successfully to the next step.
- Accept or change. Once your child better understands why they feel the way they do about an irrational fear, they have a decision to make: accept their fear and live life with limits; or change their thoughts and live life with fewer limits. Consider the fear and how it may change their lives if they can’t move past it.
When to seek professional help
If your child’s anxiety or fear is interfering with day-to-day activities, it may be time to seek professional help. Talk to your child’s pediatrician and ask for a referral to a therapist, psychologist, social worker, counselor or psychiatrist who has experience working with children and teens with anxiety issues.
It’s important to seek out a professional who uses a cognitive behavioral approach to treatment, which has been proven to be highly effective for youth dealing with anxiety. Depending on your child’s needs, therapy may last a few months, a year or more. Therapy can help many children and teens address – and conquer – their fears.
Kavita Tahilani, PhD, and John D. Herrington, PhD, are psychologists in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
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