Phobias in Children


When is it serious? What are the causes, and what can parents do?

Have you ever wondered what is so scary about bees that your child is terrified of them? Or what can you do when your 4-year-old can not cross the street because a dog is peacefully sitting behind the fences? In most cases, we do not have to agree with what is happening in the minds of our children, but we have to make an effort to understand and help them with whatever they are battling with

What does phobia mean?

A phobia is an intense fear of something or someone that continues for at least six months.

A child with a severe and uncontrolled fear of something that is not genuinely dangerous is said to have a specific phobia. A few examples of specific phobias that are widespread include those of dogs, clowns, insects, darkness, and loud noises.

How does it manifest itself at different ages?

Babies do not have phobias. However, disruptive fears can appear as early as 4 or 5 years of age. After that, phobias can develop at almost any age and persist into adulthood.

Interesting fact: specific phobias are more common in girls than boys.

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Background, causes

A phobia can have both genetic and environmental roots. There’s an evolutionary explanation behind many types of strong fears. It stands to reason that prehistoric preschoolers terrified of big animals, deep water, and snakes were more likely to survive than their less cautious peers. Other phobias seem to arise from first-hand experience.

Children with phobias often have a parent, grandparent, or relative with one or more irrational fears. This supports the likelihood of heritability, suggesting a genetic link. Or they can simply copy a fear response they’ve seen from anxious parents.

The below factors could contribute to a child's phobia development

  • Behavioural inhibitions such as shyness or withdrawal from unfamiliar settings or individuals as a child
  • Going through stressful or traumatic life experiences as a young child
  • Mental health issues in the family
  • Physical health issues (thyroid issues or irregular heart rhythms) can exacerbate anxiety symptoms.
  • Certain substances and medicines


Firstly, you should eliminate any physical problems. Then the child will be assessed by a child psychiatrist or another mental health professional. A phobia diagnosis will be made if your child’s history and symptoms match particular clinical criteria for one.


  • Increased heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Shortness of breath
  • Feeling of choking
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Upset stomach
  • Feeling dizzy or fainting
  • Fear of losing control or going crazy
  • Fear of dying
  • Numbness
  • Chills or hot flashes

Your child’s symptoms, age, and overall health will all affect the course of treatment. Furthermore, it will depend on how severe the problem is.

Different methods

  • Individual or cognitive-behavioural therapy: A child learns new ways to control anxiety and panic attacks when or if they do happen.
  • Family therapy: Parents play a vital role in any treatment process.
  • School and nursery school input: Meeting with the child’s school staff can be highly beneficial regarding early diagnosis. It is also helpful in creating a coordinated treatment plan.
  • The most effective method of treating certain phobias is exposure and response prevention. In other words, the child is repeatedly exposed to what they are terrified of until their fear lessens. This treatment is quite effective for most kids with specific phobias. For instance, a child scared of dogs could first look at an image of a dog before playing with a plush dog. They would eventually interact briefly with an actual, tiny dog.
  • Medication is only necessary in exceptional cases.
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At what point do I need a specialist?

When a child feels severe anxiety when confronted with or even thinking about their fear, keeping away from the object or situation they fear may be so great that it interferes with their ability to carry out everyday activities. Fear of bears probably isn’t going to cramp your kid’s style. But a profound needle phobia can hamper even the most routine health checkups.

What can you do as a parent?

Every child has fears at some point in their life. Phobias have the potential to last a lifetime if left untreated. Therefore, treatment is crucial.

Learning to cope with the unusual, the unpredictable, or the scary is essential if we want our children to be able to look after themselves. Give them the tools they need to assess risks and confidently approach a new situation.

What to do to help your child?

The more children know, the less they will worry. If they are afraid of storms, talk to them about where thunder and lightning come from. Give them as much information as they need to feel safe.

Phobias are a combination of the past (“I know dogs are scary because I’ve been scared by one”) and the future (“what if the dog bites me?”). Bring the child back to the present. Explain to them how this event differs from the one that scared them.

The issue with strong fears is that they bring up negative memories and strong emotions. Pairing something fun or relaxing with the issue at hand can help the child’s attitude change. Find out why. Even if fears and phobias may appear irrational, there is often a very rational story behind them that brought them to life in the first place. The generalization that may have an impact on other things can be broken by retelling the first incident.

If the parents are comfortable interacting with the animal or object that the child is afraid of, they will set an example that, in reality, it is not half as scary.

The stepladder technique is typically used in therapy to gradually expose kids to terrifying situations or objects so they can learn to deal with them differently and become less sensitive. On the other hand, phobias can appear entirely unmanageable and overwhelming. Gradual, gentle, step-by-step exposure helps build knowledge and confidence so that the child can feel stronger and less helpless in the face of their fear. It is important to do this gently and not force them to go further than they can.
It can be helpful to keep in touch with other parents with children with anxiety disorders and phobias.

Knowing the different professionals who can help in a given situation is important. Your child can get care from a team that may include counsellors, therapists, social workers, psychologists, school staff, and psychiatrists. This team will depend on your child’s needs. It is also necessary to keep any appointments you have already made with these experts.

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What not to do!

Of course, you should never force your child into a situation that scares them.
Never scold them for being afraid. Putting the kid down will not help the problem. Parents must see fear as a learning opportunity, not a character flaw. Be careful not to overreact; it is necessary to be supportive and non-judgmental.
Parents can unintentionally reaffirm phobias by avoiding scary situations or giving their child attention when crying. When the kid panics, “comfort them, but don’t be overly attentive.”
Don’t avoid people, places, or things that make your child anxious. That would be a signal to the child that he has something to be anxious about and that you don’t think he can handle the situation.

It is entirely unnecessary to repeatedly explain to the child why there is no reason to be afraid. After three or four times, telling them, “You know the answer,” is enough explanation. After all, you’ve already described in detail why there’s no need to be scared of that specific object or situation. Children cannot be talked out of things that are not reasonable in the first place. Once the panic reaction kicks in, you won’t be able to get through it with this method.
Refrain from pretending you’re not afraid of certain things. Children have a radar for when adults lie, which can scare them even more. What you can do is tell your kid that you have a silly fear and you are working on it.

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