I was a worrier as a kid. I was sure my dad, who traveled a lot, was going to die in a plane crash. I thought the night stalker I heard about on the news was going to climb into my room at night and kill me. The funny thing is, I never told my parents about any of my worries. How I handled it was tragic because I’m sure my parents would have helped assuage some of my fears. As a parent, have you ever wondered if your child’s fears are normal?
How common are fears?
Fears are a common part of childhood. Nearly half of kids have fears about something or another. Fears come and go. They are a normal part of childhood and development.
Common fears by age group:
This isn’t an exhaustive list (or it would be pages long), but I included common fears by age group. Also note that there are some overlaps in age groups.
Infants: Loud noises, being dropped, and separation.
Toddlers/Preschoolers: Monsters and darkness, loud noises (e.g., fireworks, vacuum, thunder), separation from parents, water (bath or pools), bathroom related problems (e.g., falling into the toilet, being flushed away, hurting to poop).
School-aged: Performance (especially school performance), proficiency, peer rejection, illness/dying (especially throwing up at school), bugs and animals, “bad guys.”
Teens: Social competence, evaluation (school presentations, appearance to others, etc.), psychological well-being, violence and global issues, romantic rejection.
What should I do to help my child’s fears?
The good news is that fears in general tend to be relatively short-lived and benign. They aren’t a sign of psychological distress and don’t require medications or intensive therapy. Generally, you’d only need the help of a professional if you were dealing with a debilitating phobia. As a parent, here are a few tips:
- Acknowledge the fear as real to your child. The object of the fear may not be real (e.g., a monster under the bed), but the fear is real to the child. Don’t brush it off (e.g., “don’t be such a baby, there are no such things as monsters.”). However, don’t cater to it (e.g., “you can just sleep in my bed tonight because of the monsters.”).
- Talk to your child about the fears. See if there is root cause that can be addressed (e.g., the child saw something on the news or a movie, someone they know is sick or dying).
- Never make fun of the fears, especially in front of others.
- Reassure and be supportive. Kids like to know that they aren’t the only one experiencing something.
- Don’t push your child to be brave. Kids will overcome or face a fear when ready (or it will go away). Either way, let it be on your child’s timeframe.
When is a fear too much?
When a fear becomes extreme and persistent it turns into phobias. Phobias are strong and irrational fears. The fears that are true phobias become debilitating and interfere with regular daily activities. This is the magic tipping point in terms of when to worry. If your child’s phobias prevent functioning, you’ve got a serious problem. For example, take a childhood fear of snakes (not an unreasonable or uncommon fear). When the fear is a phobia, the child may be so afraid that he/she won’t go outside for fear of encountering a snake.
How do I treat a phobia?
Treating phobias is a little more involved than just reassurance. Typically, kids with true phobias will require professional help.
- Desensitization: This is a typical strategy to treating a phobia. Desensitization involves exposing your child to very small, non-threatening doses of the source of the fear. For example, if your child is afraid of heights, a therapist might show your child pictures of tall buildings or steep mountains. Next, the therapist may show videos of tall places. Next, the therapist might ride on an elevator to a second story. Next your therapist may stand near a railed balcony, etc. These small steps continue until a child has “overcome the phobia.”
- Psychotherapy: This type of therapy focuses on teaching a child how to personally address fears and be more self-assured. It may involve things like breathing, relaxation, and visualization techniques.
- Medications: In extreme situations, sometimes a doctor will recommend medications. These are typically used in combination with other treatment modalities. The medications are usually antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications.