Parenting Resources

Fears and Phobias

Fear, or anxiety, is a common emotion experienced by everyone, and can often be beneficial as the emotion heightens our state of alertness and may protect us from dangerous situations. Even infants demonstrate the fear of strangers, and, interestingly, children’s fears change in a predictable manner as they age and mature.   We are learning the importance of parental responses to these fears, as a recent study from York University showed that preschoolers’ reactions to immunizations were influenced by their parents’ earlier responses when the children were immunized as infants.  The researchers studied what led to children’s development of fear of needles and found that “past and continuing behavior of the parent was the biggest reason” for the preschoolers anticipation of pain.  

Nicole M. Racine, Rebecca R. Pillai Riddell, David B. Flora, Anna Taddio, Hartley Garfield, Saul Greenberg. Predicting preschool pain-related anticipatory distress. PAIN, 2016; 1 DOI: 10.1097/j.pain.0000000000000590)

 As parents, we need to be mindful of how we respond to our children’s fears.  We want to assist our children as they face and, hopefully, overcome their fears. In order to help our children with their fears, parents must acknowledge their own fears and temper their personal reactions when their children are present.  In this newsletter, we will provide information on age-specific fears, along with helpful ways parents can respond.  We also need to recognize when our children’s fears have become so serious that they would benefit from professional help. 

When to seek help

There may be times when you and your child will benefit from professional consultation.  Phobias are fears that become extreme, severe, and persistent – and occur in about 5% of children.  Most phobias are eventually overcome, but some clues that it is time to consider seeking help include:

  1. Your child’s fear or anxiety prevents your child from enjoying normal life experiences. 
  2. Your child’s fear lasts for a prolonged period of time – your child is not outgrowing the fear after several months.
  3. Your child’s fear is not age- appropriate.  A fear of the dark is normal for preschoolers, for example, but not normal for elementary age children.
  4. Fears generally respond to distraction and reassurance, whereas phobias do not.
  5. Your child’s fear is adversely affecting your family’s life and daily activities.  (For example, does the fear impact the child’s life more than three times per day?)

Researchers at Virginia Tech are utilizing a single session treatment for children and adolescents experiencing phobias.  They begin with having the child construct a “fear hierarchy” in which the child lists those situations that provoke fear – from least to worst.  Then the child is gradually led through the items on the hierarchy as the child expresses what he/she fears will happen with the exposure and the child is then allowed to test their predictions.