Childhood Fears and Phobias

Fears in childhood can be a normal part of a child’s development, according to Jonathan M. Pochyly, PhD, a pediatric psychologist at Lurie Children’s. But not all kids are afraid of the same things or to the same degree. And children’s anxieties can be as unique as each individual child. 

“Growing up, every child is afraid of something or has fearful experiences,” he says. “Anything, at any age, can become the source of a fear or phobia.” Here, we look at children’s fears and phobias and share ways to support scared kids.

What is the difference between fears and phobias?

Causes of anxiety in children vary. Your child’s fears may come and go as they grow and develop. Fears are typical in childhood. However, there are some important differences between fears and phobias.

Childhood Fears

Some kids are more anxious in general. Separation anxiety in children causes fear when they’re away from their parents or caregivers. Social anxiety makes children feel uncomfortable around adults or other kids.

Children’s anxieties may worsen when they experience a frightening event like a big storm. Some kids develop fears when they overhear adults talking about scary topics. Fears may begin when your child sees news reports about crimes or terrorist attacks. 

Typically, children experience a range of fears that change throughout childhood, according to Dr. Pochyly. “We’re not talking about fears changing from Monday to Tuesday,” he says. “But maybe when a child was in second grade, he was afraid to do certain things. Now that he’s in fourth grade, he may be afraid of different things.”

What causes childhood phobias?

Sometimes, children experience irrational fear that persists. These fears often connect to a specific thing. These intense fears are phobias. Phobias may disrupt the lives of kids and their families. While every child is unique, some common childhood phobias include these fears:

  • Dogs or other animals
  • Darkness or nighttime
  • Needles
  • Spiders
  • Throwing up (vomiting)

“Children with phobias have an exaggerated sense of fear,” Dr. Pochyly says. They often avoid activities, places or people that trigger their fears. For example, children with social phobias may not want to attend parties, go to school or play sports. A child with a bee phobia may refuse to play outside. 

How do childhood fears develop?

It’s challenging to determine the specific cause of a child’s fears. But some common triggers include:

  • Exposure to an idea or image on television or in movies
  • Overhearing conversations 
  • Specific incidents that happen to them or someone they know (such as bee stings or dog bites)

Fears may begin when your child lacks context for a specific situation. “Younger kids could walk into a room where an older sibling is watching something frightening. If the child doesn’t have a frame of reference to interpret that idea, the uncertainty may cause a fearful response,” Dr. Pochyly says.

How can I help my child with their fears?

Your instinct may be to protect your child from the cause of their fear. But doing so may have the opposite effect. Children don’t have a chance to work through their fear when you try to shield them from it. Instead, support your child in facing their fears with exposure.

Exposures may help a child who is afraid of visiting a certain store, for example. “You might tell your child, ‘Every Monday and Friday, we’re going to drive by the store, and you can stick your tongue out at that ‘scary’ store,’” Dr. Pochyly says. 

After a few times, tell your child you’re going to drive to the store, park for a minute and then drive away. As this becomes manageable, tell them you’ll go inside together, buy some candy and leave. With this type of exposure, a child typically becomes less afraid.

Other ways you can help your child overcome a fear or phobia include:

Avoid unintentionally encouraging your child’s fears

Kids often look to their caregivers to see if they should be afraid of something. It may be tempting, for example, to look under beds with a child who’s afraid of “monsters.” But those checks could send your child a message that monsters do exist. Instead, encourage your child to talk about their feelings and reassure them that monsters aren’t real. Reading an age-appropriate book about monsters together may also help.

“I’m not saying parents are wrong for trying to soothe their child’s fears,” Dr. Pochyly says. “But when you look under a child’s bed for monsters, what you’re saying is there are no monsters here now, so we’d better do this again tomorrow. This response could be inadvertently reinforcing their fears.”

Follow your child’s lead

Encourage your child to explain how they’re feeling when you see they’re fearful. Tell them you’ve noticed they seem uncomfortable and ask them to tell you more about it. Let them lead the conversation.

Seek professional help

Seek help from a healthcare provider if your child struggles with fears that keep them from school or activities. A provider can help you understand what’s causing your child’s anxiety and provide treatments to help manage fears and phobias. 

Anxiety Treatment for Kids

Treatment can help children with fears and phobias. To identify the right one, your healthcare provider talks with you and your child. They listen to understand your child’s fears and help them develop ways to cope. Treatment may include:

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the primary treatment for childhood fears and phobias. Providers work with your child — and with you — to help your child become less fearful. They help kids learn not to avoid what scares them. Instead, children learn to face their fears through graded and gradual exposures.

“When kids expose themselves to what they’re afraid of, they learn they don’t need avoiding behaviors,” Dr. Pochyly says. “They realize it’s not as bad as they thought it would be or, even if it is that bad, they can manage their fear.”

Medication

Your healthcare provider may prescribe medication if your child has severe anxiety. Medication may help lower the intensity of your child’s fear so they can benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy.

Mindfulness

Providers may recommend mindfulness techniques to help your child relax. These techniques include:

  • Acceptance (acknowledging thoughts and feelings in a nonjudgemental way)
  • Breathing exercises 
  • Meditation
  • Muscle relaxation
  • Self-awareness (noticing the physical sensations and emotional experiences you’re having) 

“When you shine a light on fears and phobias, they start to shrink,” Dr. Pochyly says. “Your child can learn to understand their fears and develop other ways to react to them.”

Learn more about pediatric psychiatry and psychology at Lurie Children’s. 

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