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Childhood phobias

5-minute read

What are phobias?

A phobia is a persistent, irrational fear of a particular situation or thing. The feelings of panic and dread felt by the child are out of proportion to the threat or danger.

Phobias are extreme fears of things or situations. In children, phobias are often about dogs, spiders, the dark, storms, clowns, heights, blood or injections.

As children get older, they may develop physical symptoms because of their phobia. These include panic attacks with a racing heart, breathlessness, a tight chest, sweating and light-headedness.

A phobia can be very difficult to tolerate, both for children affected and for those around them, especially if the cause of the phobia is hard to avoid, such as social situations, thunderstorms or spiders.

Phobias can be very distressing for children. If you’re worried, it’s important to seek professional help from a doctor, psychologist or child health nurse.

When to get professional help

Phobias are a common reason parents seek help from mental health professionals. Seek professional help if your child’s anxiety or phobia:

  • interferes with their daily life
  • lasts longer than 6 months
  • is something you think they should have grown out of

How are phobias treated?

If you are worried that your child has a phobia that is affecting their everyday life, the first step is to talk to your doctor or maternal child health nurse. They may suggest your child sees a psychologist or counsellor, or sometimes a paediatrician. There are also specialist anxiety clinics in most states and territories.

Most children with anxiety can successfully be treated with cognitive behavioural therapy (talking therapy). Children with severe anxiety may sometimes be prescribed medication.

Your answers to the following questions can help you decide whether you need to consult a professional about your child’s extreme fears or phobia.

Q: Is your child's fear and the behaviour related to it typical for your child's age?

If the answer to this question is yes, it's a good bet that your child's fears will resolve before they become a serious cause for concern.

This isn't to say that the anxiety should be discounted or ignored; rather, it should be considered as a factor in your child's normal development.

Many kids experience age-appropriate fears, such as being afraid of the dark. Most, with some reassurance and perhaps a night-light, will overcome or outgrow it. However, if they continue to have trouble and the fear interferes with their daily lives, they may need professional help.

Q: Does the fear seem unreasonable in relation to the reality of the situation; and could it be a sign of a more serious problem?

If your child's fear seems out of proportion to the cause of the stress, this may signal the need to seek outside help from a counsellor, psychiatrist or psychologist.

Parents should look for patterns. If an isolated incident is resolved, don’t make it more significant than it is. But if a pattern emerges that doesn’t go away and affects your child’s life, you should take action. If you don’t, the phobia is likely to continue to affect your child.

Contact your doctor or a mental health professional who has expertise in working with kids and adolescents.

Find out more on Australian mental health services on healthdirect.

Helping your child overcome fears

Parents can help kids develop the skills and confidence to overcome fears so that they don’t turn into phobias. Here are some simple ways you can help your child deal with normal fears and anxieties.

Accept that for your child the fear is real.

As trivial as a fear may seem, it feels real to your child. It can help to talk about fears with your child. Words often take some of the power out of the negative feeling.

Tell children the facts rather than belittling their fears

Saying ‘Don't be ridiculous! There are no monsters in your closet!’ may get your child to go to bed, but it won't make the fear go away. Tell them the facts, such as ‘I checked in the cupboard and there are no monsters in it’.

Help children learn about things that scare them

If your child fears dogs, don't cross the street deliberately to avoid one. This will just reinforce that dogs should be feared and avoided. Provide support and gentle care as you approach the feared object or situation with your child.

Teach kids how to rate fear

Ask your child to rate the intensity of the fear on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the strongest. Younger kids can think about how ‘full of fear’ they are, with being full ‘up to my knees’ as not so scared, ‘up to my stomach’ as more frightened, and ‘up to my head’ as truly petrified. If they can do this, they may be able to see the fear as less intense than first imagined.

Teach children coping strategies

Try these easy to implement techniques. Using you as ‘home base’, the child can venture out toward the feared object, and then return to you for safety before venturing out again. The child can also learn some positive self-statements, such as ‘I can do this’ and ‘I can be brave’ to say to themselves when feeling anxious.

Relaxation techniques are helpful, including visualisation (for example asking the child to imagine they are floating on a cloud or lying on a beach) and deep breathing (imagining that the lungs are balloons and letting them slowly deflate).

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Last reviewed: May 2021

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