Fear is essential to learn the skills of self-preservation and children begin experiencing fear quite early in their lives. However, the type of fears children experience changes with age. And, as children grow, they learn to overcome their fears by learning facts, and developing courage and confidence. But, this does not happen with some children. In their case, over time, fears take on a severe form and degenerate into phobias.
But why do children develop phobias?
According to the article, ‘Why Do We Develop Certain Irrational Phobias?’ by Andrew Watts, published in Scientific American (2014), “For fear to escalate to irrational levels, a combination of genetic and environmental factors is very likely at play. Estimates of genetic contributions to specific phobia range from roughly 25 to 65 percent, although we do not know which genes have a leading part.”
While our understanding of the hows and whys of phobias remains limited, children suffering from them lead a very troubled life.
Some of the symptoms that phobias can cause in children are:
- Rapid heartbeat
- Hot flushes or chills
- Shortness of breath
- A choking sensation
- Upset stomach
- Urge to go to the toilet
- Dry mouth
- Pain or discomfort in the chest
- Feeling dizzy or faint
Children can suffer from many types of fears. Some of the common childhood fears that can metamorphose into phobias, if not addressed in time, are:
1. Fear of the dark: Children begin fearing darkness by the time they are two to three years old. At this age, the child begins to develop the power of imagination and fantasy play. As a result, she is engaged overtime in imagining about monsters and dragons, perceiving objects of everyday use as various scary characters and so on. However, a child of this age is unable differentiate the imaginary from the real. So, when it’s time to sleep and the lights are switched off, the child’s imagination makes even familiar things in the room seem scary.
What parents can do: There are various ways in which parents can address this issue. For example, leaving a night lamp on, giving her a flashlight or doing activities to dispel the fear. You can also read the article, ‘Helping Your Toddler Overcome Fear of the Dark’ to get more ideas.
2. Fear of animals: Some children develop extreme fear of animals. Some of the reasons why children may start fearing animals are: an unpleasant experience with some animal, parents passing on their bad experience with an animal to the child, or watching (or listening about) someone having a dangerous experience with an animal.
What parents can do: A child who is scared of animals should not be forced to pet animals. Acknowledge the child’s feelings and reassure him that not all animals are dangerous. Expose him slowly to animals and give him time to try and overcome his fear. Parents can also opt for getting a pet and having the child help with feeding and taking care of the animal. This will also help the child understand how to behave around animals.
3. Fear of school: While most children look forward to attending school, for some, the very thought of going to school gives rise to a feeling of dread. Some common reasons for children refusing to go to school include bullying, unsafe environment in school, fear of being teased and so on.
What parents can do: It can be distressing and frustrating for parents to deal with a child who is suffering from this condition. While discussing about enjoyable experiences in school or finding a friend for the child can help, this condition requires professional help to find out the real cause of the problem.
4. Fear of death: As children grow up and their knowledge increases, they begin to understand that every living being has to die. Also, the fact that no one is able to tell them what happens after death leaves them feeling confused and unsure. The thought of being left alone after parents have died or the thought that someone whom the child loves would die makes a child feel anxious and fearful.
What parents can do: Discuss about death but, at the same time, reassure the child that he shouldn’t worry too much about it. Also, it is better to discuss the issue during the daytime, as talking about death in the dark can increase a child’s fears and worries. When your child raises any questions about death, answer it honestly.
For any fear to be called a phobia, it should last for at least 6 months. While self-help techniques like relaxation and visualisation can help some children overcome their fears, it may not work with others. So, parents need to keep a watchful eye on their child’s behaviour and seek professional help if things go from bad to worse.
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