Childhood fears are quite common and very normal. Whether it is the 4 year-old boy who is afraid of the dark or the 15 year-old girl who is afraid of heights, fears are present in all age groups and genders. For the most part, these fears are just a part of normal development and children outgrow them. They can, however, be a nuisance and become more pronounced and exaggerated. How you approach these fears may help determine how they progress.
Young kids frequently develop fears based on their increased awareness of the environment and their imagination (monsters, darkness, storms), whereas older kids have fears based more on the threat of bodily harm (heights, burglars, injections). Kids develop fears because of many different factors. One factor is because of genetics – kids with anxious or fearful parents are more likely to have fears themselves. Also, the temperament of the child plays a part – children who are shy and withdraw from unfamiliar situations tend to have more fears. Specific fears are thought to develop from direct experience (going through a bad storm), observation of someone else’s fearful response (seeing someone react in fear to a barking dog), hearing/reading about frightening events (wars reported on the news), or a combination of all three.
The management of fears focuses on helping the child cope with and overcome the fear. It is important to acknowledge your child’s fears, but they should not be exaggerated or belittled. Fears should never be used to threaten the child (i.e. threatening the child with shots at the doctor’s office). It is ok to allow your child to initially avoid the fearful stimulus, but being too overprotective and allowing them to continually avoid the stimulus confirms to the child that it must be something that needs to be avoided. Older children can be talked through their fears, helping them relax, and gentle exposure. Younger children may need more concrete action, such as a night-light or “monster proofing” their bedroom.
As fears are quite common and do not cause any serious problems, they are rarely brought up to a child’s pediatrician. On the other hand, a phobia is the persistent dread of and preoccupation with an object or situation that interferes with a child’s functioning. The fear response in a phobia appears to be out of proportion to the danger. It may be normal for a child to be fearful of a dog, but it would not be normal for that child to refuse to leave the house in case a dog may be outside. If you ever are concerned that your child’s fear is more than a simple fear or that it is not allowing them to function normally, please discuss it with your pediatrician. Further evaluation by a specialist may be required.