You may be surprised to learn that young children have more fears and phobias than adults
do and that they experience the emotion of fear much more intensely. Most of us have
some sort of irrational fear or another and the correct definition of a phobia is “an intense
and irrational fear of something that, in reality, poses little or no danger”. Small children
will show many fears as they grow up and learn about the world around them and this is
only natural – they may fear things that they don’t understand. As children grow older and
learn to make sense of the world and everything in it, these fears usually fizzle out and
disappear. However, some children may hang on to one or more of their fears until it
becomes a phobia and this is the time for parents and caregivers to step in and try to help
them conquer the fears.
Here are some examples of normal fears that children of specific ages can be expected to
0 – 2 years: loud noises, strangers, separation from parents or caregivers, large
3 – 6 years: imaginary things such as monsters, ghosts, the dark, strange noises,
7 – 16 years: more realistic fears such as illness, injury, death, natural disasters and
performance at school
Research tells us that there are four common types of phobia:
Animal phobia: examples include fear of snakes, spiders, dogs, rodents, birds,
Natural environment phobias: examples include fear of heights, storms, the dark or
Situational phobias: these are fears that are triggered by a specific situation such as
fear of enclosed spaces, flying, driving, tunnels and bridges
Blood-Injection injury phobia: these fears include injury, blood, the dentist, needles
or other medical procedures.
A phobia can make life difficult for both the child and the parents, so overcoming the phobia
is essential and this will often involve engaging professional help. However, first of all you
need to be sure that this really is a phobia and not just a fear that your child can grow out of
with some help from you.
For normal and age appropriate fears and anxieties, there are plenty of measures parents
can take to help their child develop the skills and confidence they need to overcome the
fear before it develops into a full blown phobia. First, recognize that the fear is real, however trivial it may seem to you. Encourage
your child to talk about the fear as putting it into words will often take away some of
the power of the negative feelings.
Never belittle the fear to try to force your child to overcome it. However ridiculous it
may seem that there is a “monster under the bed”; the feelings of fear are very real
to your child.
Don’t give in to the fear, this will just reinforce it and make it worse. If your child is
scared of dogs, then don’t cross the road to avoid walking past a dog – instead
support your child with gentle words of encouragement as you walk past the dog.
Teach your child to rate fear on a scale of 1 to 10 (with 10 being the scariest) or with
the fear moving up through the body (up to the knees, tummy, chest, head, etc).
Teach your child strategies that he can use to cope with the fear. Encourage your
child to use positive self-talk, such as “I can do this” and “I will be okay” when they
feel anxious. Get your child to use you as a safe home as they approach the object
they fear – letting him slowly approach and then back off again as often as he likes –
he will gain in confidence (and the fear will subside a little) each time he makes
those small steps towards the object of fear. Teach your child some deep breathing
and visualization techniques to use when feeling anxious – for example floating on a
cloud or sitting on a beach and breathing deeply in and out.
If the fears do persist despite all your efforts to help, then it would be a good idea to talk to
your GP about referring your child to a therapist who will help him conquer the fear before
it becomes a proper phobia that will affect his enjoyment of life in the future