Just like many adults, children too can suffer from fears, anxieties, and often phobias.
The central difference between a ‘normal’ fear and a phobia is the level to which that fear manifests itself and the persistent levels of anxiety that it carries with it.
Described as a form of anxiety disorder, phobias can often be overwhelming and debilitating to the individual. They are more acute than a fear and develop when a person, in this case, a child, develops an exaggerated sense of danger surrounding a particular object, situation or place.
Young children tend to have more fears and phobias than most adults, with the level of emotional reaction they experience often being more intense. Regardless of how irrational a fear may seem to an outside perspective, to the sufferer it’s very real, and for children, in particular, the sensations and physical response can often feel incredibly scary and intense.
In the UK, it is thought that around 5% of children suffer from phobias, and this increases dramatically to 16% of British teenagers.
Whilst it’s common for children to have fears of certain things, such as dogs, the dark, dentists, etc, phobias are when these fears become so debilitating and severe that they impact a child’s quality of life and can even make everyday activities impossible, even with reassurance from adults or caregivers.
Understanding the symptoms of phobias in children and how to help them is important, CABA, the wellbeing charity, has put together a handy guide for spotting phobias and how you can help to support your child if they’re suffering.
These extreme fears come from the internal drive to keep ourselves safe from harm.
When someone is experiencing a phobia, their body doesn’t recognise that it’s not actually in a dangerous situation and doesn’t need a ‘fight or flight’ response.
However, it will continue to create the sense of imminent danger for the individual.
Here are some recognisable physical and psychological symptoms of a phobia;
- Increased heart rate
- Shaking or trembling
- Upset stomach and feeling the need to go to the toilet
- Feeling dizzy or faint
- Sensation of choking
- Hot flushes
- Dry mouth
- Pins and needles or the sensation of numbness
- Fear of dying
- Fear of losing control and dread
Is it a phobia, or just a phase?
It’s important to distinguish between temporary transient fears (normal childhood worries), and phobias in children.
The majority of children go through phases of fearing certain things, and this is closely related to their age – very young children may fear animals, the dark or loud noises.
Whilst slightly older children may find themselves scared of personal danger, doctors or open wounds for example. Parents should be aware that these fears are quite natural and over time they will naturally ease.
Although there is no way to prevent a child from developing a phobia, there are many treatments now available to help ease the symptoms and give coping strategies to enable the child to overcome the phobia. These include:
- Talking therapies – these help children to discuss what it is that’s causing such distress and extreme fear. It gives them the opportunity to learn new techniques and ways of controlling the phobia
- Desensitisation – this is where you expose your child to the source of their anxiety in small and manageable amounts, whilst providing them with support. Eventually, they’ll find themselves becoming a little less sensitive to the source each time they confront it
- Medication – In some extreme cases medication can be an option, however, this should be guided by a professional doctor with experience in child phobias.
As a parent, there are a number of things you can do which may prove useful for helping a child suffering from a phobia.
Be understanding and sympathetic, talk to your child and listen to their fears, whilst gently explaining that they can overcome them.
Never belittle the phobia, to the child it’s very intense and real. Whilst it can be frustrating, remember to be patient with them, as overcoming phobias takes time and courage meaning they should be praised and encouraged through each milestone.
It’s also important to remember that the emotional turmoil experienced by a child with a phobia can have a serious impact on the rest of the family.
Parents often intensely share the worries of their children and it can be distressing to see your child suffering in such a way.
So be sure to get the necessary help for yourself, to ensure that you are best equipped to deal with the emotional ups-and-downs of seeing your child suffer from a phobia.
Ensure you have a strong support system for yourself in place, and make sure you don’t carry the full weight of this on your own.
For other handy tips on how to overcome phobias, check out our help and guideswhich provides some useful information and ideas on what you can do to overcome and manage panic and anxiety associated with phobias.