My child seems to be afraid of
a lot of things. Should I be worried?
From time to time, every child experiences fear.
As youngsters explore the world around them,
having new experiences and confronting new challenges,
anxieties are almost an unavoidable part of
Fears are common
According to one study, 43 percent of children
between ages 6 and 12 had many fears and concerns.
A fear of darkness, particularly being left
alone in the dark, is one of the most common
fears in this age group. So is a fear of animals,
such as large barking dogs. Some children are
afraid of fires, high places or thunderstorms.
Others, conscious of news reports on TV and
in the newspapers, are concerned about burglars,
kidnappers or nuclear war. If there has been
a recent serious illness or death in the family,
they may become anxious about the health of
those around them.
In middle childhood, fears wax
and wane. Most are mild, but even when they
intensify, they generally subside on their own
after a while.
Sometimes fears can become so extreme, persistent
and focused that they develop into phobias.
Phobias – which are strong and irrational
fears – can become persistent and debilitating,
significantly influencing and interfering with
a child's usual daily activities. For instance,
a 6-year-old youngster's phobia about dogs might
make him so panicky that he refuses to go outdoors
at all because there could be a dog there. A
10-year-old child might become so terrified
about news reports of a serial killer that he
insists on sleeping with his parents at night.
Some youngsters in this age
group develop phobias about the people they
meet in their everyday lives. This severe shyness
can keep them from making friends at school
and relating to most adults, especially strangers.
They might consciously avoid social situations
like birthday parties or Scout meetings, and
they often find it difficult to converse comfortably
with anyone except their immediate family.
Separation anxiety is also common
in this age group. Sometimes this fear can intensify
when the family moves to a new neighborhood
or children are placed in a childcare setting
where they feel uncomfortable. These youngsters
might become afraid of going to summer camp
or even attending school. Their phobias can
cause physical symptoms like headaches or stomach
pains and eventually lead the children to withdraw
into their own world, becoming clinically depressed.
At about age 6 or 7, as children
develop an understanding about death, another
fear can arise. With the recognition that death
will eventually affect everyone, and that it
is permanent and irreversible, the normal worry
about the possible death of family members –
or even their own death – can intensify.
In some cases, this preoccupation with death
can become disabling.
Treating fears and phobias
Fortunately, most phobias are quite treatable.
In general, they are not a sign of serious mental
illness requiring many months or years of therapy.
However, if your child's anxieties persist and
interfere with her enjoyment of day-to-day life,
she might benefit from some professional help
from a psychiatrist or psychologist who specializes
in treating phobias.
As part of the treatment plan
for phobias, many therapists suggest exposing
your child to the source of her anxiety in small,
non threatening doses. Under a therapist's guidance
a child who is afraid of dogs might begin by
talking about this fear and by looking at photographs
or a videotape of dogs. Next, she might observe
a live dog from behind the safety of a window.
Then, with a parent or a therapist at her side,
she might spend a few minutes in the same room
with a friendly, gentle puppy. Eventually she
will find himself able to pet the dog, then
expose herself to situations with larger, unfamiliar
This gradual process is called
desensitization, meaning that your child will
become a little less sensitive to the source
of her fear each time she confronts it. Ultimately,
the child will no longer feel the need to avoid
the situation that has been the basis of her
phobia. While this process sounds like common
sense and easy to carry out, it should be done
only under the supervision of a professional.
Sometimes psychotherapy can
also help children become more self-assured
and less fearful. Breathing and relaxation exercises
can assist youngsters in stressful circumstances
Occasionally, your doctor may
recommend medications as a component of the
treatment program, although never as the sole
therapeutic tool. These drugs may include antidepressants,
which are designed to ease the anxiety and panic
that often underlie these problems.
What parents can do
Here are some suggestions that many parents
find useful for their children with fears and
- Talk with your youngster
about his anxieties, and be sympathetic. Explain
to him that many children have fears, but
with your support he can learn to put them
- Do not belittle or ridicule
your child's fears, particularly in front
of his peers.
- Do not try to coerce your
youngster into being brave. It will take time
for him to confront and gradually overcome
his anxieties. You can, however, encourage
(but not force) him to progressively come
face-to-face with whatever he fears.
Since fears are a normal part
of life and often are a response to a real or
at least perceived threat in the child's environment,
parents should be reassuring and supportive.
Talking with their children, parents should
acknowledge, though not increase or reinforce,
their children's concerns. Point out what is
already being done to protect the child, and
involve the child in identifying additional
steps that could be taken. Such simple, sensitive
and straightforward parenting can resolve or
at least manage most childhood fears. When realistic
reassurances are not successful, the child's
fear may be a phobia.