How to handle Phobias in children?
Created by Anurima Updated on Jul 10, 2013
‘Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood’- Marie Curie
All of us have fears, anxieties and worries. Fear in a child, can take over his/her life. I have seen a little boy absolutely refuse to leave the house after being attacked by a dog; a 9 year old girl was not ready to go back to school after being laughed at by the entire class for her new haircut.
At the age of 5 or 6 years, I had a fear of elevators. I thought the doors would close on me. I always seemed to freeze while getting into one. For years I refused to get into an elevator and would prefer to climb numerous flights of stairs to avoid taking an elevator. This went on till I was in my 20s!
Fear could be triggered off by an incident and it could gradually disrupt a child’s normal life. Fear, at this stage, may become a Phobia. A Phobia is an extreme fear, which can last until adulthood. We may not give much importance to our children’s fears and may feel that they will ‘just grow out of it.’ This, unfortunately, could lead to the child growing up with phobias and other psychological issues. A timely intervention can help a child cope with his/her fears better at an early stage, helping them to deal with anxiety in a more positive way.
During the course of my research, I found the following to be the most common phobias among children:
1.Fear of Heights or Acrophobia: Acrophobia is mostly hereditary. Children inherit the fear from their parents or from a traumatic experience, such as falling from a tree or watching someone get hurt after falling from a height. Children suffering from acrophobia may also find it difficult to look down when standing on a chair as they are unsure of their balance.
Symptoms include dizziness, nausea, feeling faint and trembling.
2.Fear of Enclosed Spaces or Claustrophobia: Claustrophobia is a fear of being trapped in small areas, for example, a small room, an elevator or even crowded places such as movie theatres, with a fear of not being able to escape which could eventually lead to lack of oxygen. Children are easily influenced by the things they see around them. So, a child is likely to pick up on fear displayed by an adult in certain situations and in case the parent suffers from Claustrophobia, the child is very likely to be claustrophobic.
Symptoms include nausea, hot flushes, panic attacks, sweating, fainting to name a few.
3.Fear of Water or Aqua phobia: Aqua phobia too, like all the other fears, may result from a traumatic experience such as near drowning or any other frightening experience in water. The severity of this phobia may vary from child to child. Some children may be afraid of large water bodies such as the sea or the swimming pool, but some children may fear even sitting in a bath tub filled with water. If a parent’s displays fear of water when going for a swim, the child will pick up on the fear and model the parent’s behaviour.
Symptoms include shivering with anxiety, freeze in the place or trying to escape.
4.Fear of Blood or Homophobia: A child may develop an exaggerated fear of blood from the sight of their own blood, blood of another person or even images of blood on the television. A child with a fear of blood may also have fear of needles/ injections or Trypanophobia. The sight of blood may remind them of their own vulnerability and the pain.
Symptoms include dizziness, nausea, fainting, anxiety and drop in blood pressure.
5.Fear of Spiders or Arachnophobia: Most of us fear spiders. My daughter does not even look straight at the picture of the spider in her rhyme Little Miss Muffet. On occasions when she sees a real spider, she screams, runs to us, sometimes shivering. I believe that most children and adults alike have a negative reaction to spiders. This fear may not necessarily arise after a frightening experience with spiders, but the mere sight of spiders may make most children want to completely avoid any kind of contact with them.
Symptoms include excessive sweating, rapid breathing, breathlessness and a full anxiety attack.
6.Fear of being laughed at or Gelotophobia: Gelotophobia is fairly common among children. This fear can stem from being teased or laughed at by peers at school or in a play group. Children with this fear cannot distinguish the different types of laughter and may associate any form of laughter as ridicule to them.
Symptoms include social withdrawal, lack of humour, liveliness or joy and low self esteem.
Do all fears turn into phobias?
The answer to this is No. Fear is a normal part of growing up and it is considered a healthy part of one’s life. A child can be easily afraid of almost anything- from a negative experience or from watching someone’s reaction in a fearful situation. For instance, my daughter has picked up the fear of spiders, cockroaches and lizards just by watching me react to the sight of any of them. So, if your child is afraid of bugs or spiders, it does not signify that he/she has a phobia.
A Phobia is an extreme fear and can affect a child’s personal, social and academic life. An encounter with the object or an experience related to a phobia can make a child extremely anxious. This anxiety can cause distress to the child and other members in the family. Most children grow out of the fears with time and with reassurance and guide from the elders.
What to do if I suspect my child has a phobia?
We may not be certain that our children’s fears could have progressed into a phobia. However, extreme fear causing anxiety and distress for about over six months may need an action from the parent to help the child cope better with the fear and not let it turn into a phobia. For example, if a child is afraid of thunderstorm and refuses to step out even at the sight of dark clouds and making him/her extremely anxious could be a sign of a phobia. A child fearing thunderstorm will not think about it on a cloudy day. On the other hand, a child with a phobia may not be able to concentrate on his/her activities without worrying about the chances of thunder showers.
How can a parent help a child cope or overcome the phobias?
1.Talk openly to your child and reassure him/her that you understand the fears and that you are there to listen and help.
2.Making a list of fears from the least frightening to the worst is a good way to start.
3.Have a discussion with your child on how both of you as a team will try and tackle each fear one by one.
4.A light and a friendly approach will help your child begin this journey with ease leaving behind some anxiety.
5.You may take advantage of opportunities to help your child overcome his/her fears. For example, to help my child overcome her fear of spiders, one day on spotting a one, I took her near the spider (close enough to take a good look, but at a distance where she was comfortable) and pointed out its legs and its body. I then explained to her that they are creatures of God, like we are, and need to survive by eating. So spiders come into our homes in search of food and if threatened, some may bite. Then on, she does not seem as frightened as she used to.
6.You may also deliberately help your child face the fear by reassuring him/her that you are there and will not let your child get hurt. For example, one of the first steps to help your child cope with Aqua Phobia could be to take your child to a swimming pool and let him/her observe other people swimming. If he/she feels comfortable, the next step could be to sit close to the pool, then after a few days, he/she could try to dip their feet into the pool. This could also be done at home if there is a bath tub. Gradually helping them face the fears and helping them realize that there is nothing to be afraid from, will help boost your child’s confidence.
7.Role playing is also an effective way to help your child deal with the fear. For example, to help a child over come the fear of blood or needles, one could play doctor and practice the things a doctor would do in one of his/her routine check up. Taking them along for one of your blood test appointments may also help them overcome the fear ( I remember; the last time my daughter had to get a blood test done she was very anxious but I told the nurse to make the pin prick on my finger first. Once she saw me getting it done she was less anxious).
8.Positive reinforcements and encouragements are things which your child will always benefit from. So if your child seems overwhelmed in a fearful environment, repeating positive phrases such as ‘you can do it’ can reassure him/her and help to face the situation.
9.Parents suffering from phobias pass on the same to their children. To prevent your children from developing the same phobias, you may need to keep your phobic reaction under control. Repeatedly seeing the parent’s fearful reaction may trigger the same in a child. So, if we keep our fears under control, we are unlikely to pass them on to our children. This is how I dealt with my fear of spiders, to help alleviate the fear in my child. It was not easy for me, but I am glad I did as I do not see the same level of fear in her now.
10.If your child’s fear does not seem to be going away, or you see him/her in too much distress in spite of your efforts, you may seek the advice of a counsellor. A counsellor may be able to provide some professional help and advice in helping your child cope better.
11.Reading books or telling stories about an issue at hand has always helped my child understand and cope better with the circumstance in hand. Reading books to your child about someone else’s feelings and fears will help your child understand better and may also help him/her overcome those fears.
Here are a few recommendations for books to read to your child:
•The Worry Warts by Pamela Duncan.
•The Very Noisy Night by Diana Hendry.
•No Matter What by Debi Gliori.
•I’m Worried by Jen Green.
•All Kind of Fears by Emma Brownjohn.
•I’ll Always Love You by Paeony Lewis.
•An Anxious Mind: A Teen’s Guide to Managing Anxiety and Panic.
The books mentioned above could be found in any Crossword book store and online. Older children may select books of their choice from a library or a book store and read on how to deal with their fears and anxieties.
Reassurance, encouragement and support from us are the first things our children need to start the battle with their fears.
Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear ---Ambrose Redmoon
| Sep 01, 2017
my daughter is 3. 5 yr old. she is scared of pressure cooker whistle whenever I put cooker she will not come to kitchen go to bedroom and close the door. she is scared of very loud noise also. we both tried many times to explain her that whistle will not hurt u,I hold her at a comfortable distance whenever whistle rings in kitchen. but till date she is scared of whistle. pls help me. Thank you for such an article. i am really grateful to u. Thanks
| Dec 08, 2016
My child dislike to go to school. She is 7 years old. She gets ready to school promptly but hates to have breakfast and lunch. Sometimes she gets up saying she doesn't want to go and take a leave today.
| Sep 23, 2015
My child is 1. 9 mnth old n she is scared of toys with light n sound... plz help
| Jun 18, 2015
My son is 6 yes and he is scared of dark. If he is in drawing room n nr bedrooms lights are off he will not enter tht room even if nxt room light is on. Sometimes in day time also he get scared to enter tht room. Kindly help
| Jun 13, 2014
Hi Anurima, Thanks for such a wonderful article. My daughter is 1. 5 yrs old and she got scared whenever she listens to a horn of any vehicle. She walks very nicely and confidently on society roads while going to the park but she starts crying and come close to us and wants us to pick her up whenever she listens to horn of any vehicle. What should I do in this case?
| Jun 13, 2014
Hi . My daughter is 3. 4 month old n she is very much scared of the advertisement that comes between her cartoons.
| Jan 28, 2014
Sandhya, Even my daughter used to be very scared of darkness or as u said to be alone in the dark. I feel this is very common in children and your son is too small to understand that. My daughter is 8 now and even now when she goes to sleep alone, she tells me not to close the door at least.. I leave it half open for her. Sometimes even though I'm at home, she is scared to go the bathroom alone if the room is dark but that is rare, its very irritating though :-) You need to wait for another two years to see the change. Give him time and then slowly you can make him realize. Hope this helps!!
| Jan 28, 2014
My son who is 4+ is very scared of darkness he plays and fools around in the day time but, he cant be alone in the dark and int he nights... he always wants some one to be with him. I tried to explain him that is not the correct way he shpuld go into the dark and see i also took him into a dark roomand showed that there is nothing to fear its just another part of the day.. But, he is reluctant... to understand.
| Jan 18, 2014
Dear arbeela, sibling fights many times affect a healthy relationship and child development if not handled aptly and properly. Since your son has been affected at an intense level professional help must be taken at earliest. He might not be ignoring his brother's deed entirely out of love, may be he is afraid that he might get more bullied if he tells u. Please seek some good counselor before your son totally loses his self esteem and confidence. Further i guess it would be better if your elder son also has conversation with counsellor as affecting someone so badly by bullying is also not good. Might be having a younger sibling have caused him to believe that he is losing his share of love from u, this would even affect him adversely too. Handling more than one child is real tedious and challenging job. Hope u find remedy soon
| Nov 22, 2013
My son is scared of his elder brother who bullies him all the time,and wen we ask him abt this brother he always ignores as if nothing has happens becoz he says he loves his big brother so much and is afraid he might get beaten up if papa n mom comes to know abt his bullying. He has started stammering n now his teacher was telling me that he has startedto forget things and lessons. plz share the same experience here n remedy if any.
| Sep 24, 2013
My son is scared of thunderstorm and rain. I hope the tips help.
| Aug 03, 2013
Good article Anurima
| Aug 02, 2013
Thanks for such an informative article....
| Jul 11, 2013
Thanks Anurima for such a useful piece of information, as my daughter is really afraid of storm n heavy rains, i will definitely explain her the process of rain, so as to reduce her fear.
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