Overcoming childhood fears and anxieties

Common childhood fears.
Common childhood fears. 

It can be hard for parents to empathise with their children’s fears, especially when they seem irrational and/or unreasonable. Anxiety is often linked to childhood fears where there is no immediate threat to safety or wellbeing but the child feels afraid anyway. But parents need to understand that fear is a survival instinct for self protection that children need to hone as they grow up, in order to have a proper perception of true danger.

For this reason childhood fears will change over time, and almost all children will be afraid of at least one or more of the following things during childhood or adolescence:

Infants/Toddlers commonly fear:
- Loud noises
- Imposing objects
- Strangers
- Separation
- Sudden change

All of these things cause fear in babies because they disrupt a baby’s trust in familiar surroundings and regular routine. Babies will need to be soothed and reassured with close touch and contact when scared so that they realise the thing that they are scared of is not going to hurt them.

Preschoolers/Younger children commonly fear:
- Darkness
- Unfamiliar or scary noises, often when in darkness
- Masks and costumes
- Fantasy creatures-monsters, ghosts, etc.
- Loud, large and active animals
- Separation

A fear of the unknown increases at this age but preschoolers/younger children are incapable of distinguishing between fantasy and reality until they are close to starting school, and their developing imaginations will often enhance their perception of something they are scared of, although they do not yet have the ability to calm themselves down without adult assistance.

Observation is a powerful tool for calming fears in children of this age by giving them a chance to have a safe experience with what they are afraid of (such as spending time with a friendly dog) or by showing them that what they are afraid of is not actually real (such as sitting with them in a dark room or opening closets and looking under beds to show them that there is nothing there).

Older children commonly fear:
- Snakes, spiders or other dangerous animals
- Storms, lightning, thunder and natural disasters/crisis situations-fires, floods, earthquakes, etc.
- Separation
- Intimidating people who appear to be different such as mentally ill or homeless people
- Heights
- Water, waves and the surf
- Blood, needles or medical procedures
- Supernatural things that are rooted in urban legend
- Failure and rejection related to social experiences and academic challenges
- Performing or speaking in front of peers and/or unknown people
- Injury, illness, pain and death and the experiences they have heard about in the news or through personal experience that could lead to these things such as robbery or kidnapping

As children mature they begin to comprehend what is truly harmful in relation to them, and if they have a directly negative or traumatic experience (for example if the family home is robbed) or even an indirect one (for example if a friend finds a snake in her backyard) this may elevate their anxiety about a certain fear.

Older children also have more complexity to their fears such as being afraid of deep water due to hearing about someone drowning or being afraid of sharks, but by this age they are able to better calm themselves down using a variety of techniques that parents can teach them such as discussing the reality of the fear, deep breathing, creative expression, and role playing.

How can parents help?
By addressing a child’s fears at every age, the fears are less likely to remain as a child gets older. A fear that is inappropriate for a child’s age is one that wasn’t been fully or properly dealt with at the time when it started, which can be influenced by the following things:

- If a child is teased about a fear that may be deemed as inappropriate for his or her age. If so, he or she may feel embarrassed to talk about it, evaluate how realistic the fear is, and overcome it.

- If parents reinforce their children’s fears because they have the same fear as an adult, such as heights, needles or snakes. Children then model their reactions to these same things based on how their parents conduct themselves around them. Some research has shown that genetics play a part in anxiety disorders whereby children of people who suffer from anxiety are more likely to develop their own anxiety and children with a propensity to anxiety can get anxious about almost any new experience.

- Not allowing opportunities for your child to come into contact with what he or she is afraid of. It may be easier not to force your child who is scared of water not to get in the pool for swimming lessons but it won’t help to alleviate your child’s anxiety and it will deprive him or her of life skills he or she needs to stay safe.

- Encourage your child to experience the thing that they are scared of at a safe distance, such as observing a thunderstorm in a movie or standing on the edge of a pool and gradually build up to bigger challenges such as sitting by a window when a storm is taking place or dipping feet into the pool before swimming in the shallow end, etc.

- To help keep your child calm during these times when faced with the source of his or her fear, explain that she is safe (to get your child to believe in his or her own efficacy to manage the situation) and that it will subside (such as when the storm ends). This helps to prevent the initial anxiety symptoms from escalating into a panic attack. Parents may need to explain to other caregivers (such as swimming teachers) what their child is afraid of so the caregiver can act in the same way when they are not with their child.

- Not being honest with children about fears rooted in reality. There’s no point in telling your child an earthquake will never happen instead you should let your child know that bad things do happen but there are ways to cope, and explain what precautions need to be taken to stay safe when accidents and emergencies do occur.

When does a fear need to be treated?
When a fear is a source of anxiety that is prolonged, there may be a need to seek help from a medical professional, because anxiety causes the body to switch into “fight or flight” mode, increasing heart rate and causing faster or heavier breathing as well as sweating, involuntary twitches or shaking, and dizziness, and in more extreme cases even chest pains, numbness/pins and needle sensations, panic attacks and nausea, which are not good for the body to regularly tolerate.

These physical symptoms may also induce even more fear in children when a child doesn’t understand why his or her body is reacting in such a way if he or she has never previously experienced any of the symptoms and interprets them as a sign of physical danger.

Furthermore when anxiety persists it can even develop into an anxiety disorder (such as a generalised anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive anxiety disorder, post traumatic stress disorder and social anxiety disorder), or a particular phobia. The most common phobias are animal phobias, environmental phobias and situational phobias such as fear of enclosed spaces such as elevators and tunnels (claustrophobia) or fear of flying, but other more unusual phobias can also arise, depending on a child’s specific experiences.

A phobia can be very disruptive to a child’s development and his or her parent’s ability to lead a normal life, especially when the source of the phobia is difficult to avoid (such as the next door neighbour’s dog or thunderstorms) and may need to be treated with counselling, cognitive-behaviour therapy or even medication if it persists to such a degree that the child is frequently highly stressed.

With cognitive-behaviour therapy the child would be persuaded to assess the reality of the fear, find evidence to counter the fear and producing more realistic thoughts about the fear before exposing himself or herself to whatever it is that is feared. Each success experience is then added to the child’s list of evidence that the thing they are afraid of is not in reality that fearful and will help them face an even more fearful stimulus.

However, regardless of which treatment method is chosen by parents or recommended by a professional, it is important that treatment is given when necessary because phobias can stay with a child as she grows into an adult, if left untreated.

Facts verified by Nikki Johnston, psychologist at Centre for Emotional Health at Macquarie University.