Childhood Fears and Phobias
Fears are a normal part of childhood. For most children, fears are mild, age-specific, and temporary, and most fears decrease with age. Although each child’s own learning history determines their fears, some fears cluster at certain ages. Despite this, there are many common trends in children. The baby, whose fears are concrete and focused on the environment around him, exhibits behaviors that reflect fear in response to noise or strangers. Fear of imaginary beings (such as monsters) may arise as the child grows. Older children or adolescents are more likely to fear more intuitive, abstract and global stimuli and events (Gullone, 1996). These older children’s fears tend to be more cognitive. As the child’s imagination develops, the fears become less concrete and more imaginary.
Age-specific fears are usually temporary and short-lived. Studies have shown that children aged 2-6 have an average of three fears, and 40% of children aged 6-12 may have as many as seven (Miller, 1983). There is evidence that parents tend to understate their children’s fears. That is, when children were asked directly, they were found to report more fears than studies based on parental statements show. The findings also confirm the common clinical belief that girls report more fear than boys, and that their fears are also more intense.
Children often acquire fear of objects or situations when they experience unpleasant situations associated with those stimuli. These experiences may be serious, or the child may have received a lot of attention during or after the event. The child’s experiences, cognitive development, expanding resources, and reactions of parents or caregivers are often effective in overcoming fears. As the child gets older, his increasing cognitive skills and experience provide him with more resources. This enables the child to respond increasingly adaptively to frightening situations (Campbell, 1986).
Many childhood fears come and go without intervention. Fears that persist until after the expected age limit, on the other hand, can intensify and generalize to other situations if not coped with. For example, a child who is afraid of being in a room with a closed door may over time become afraid of elevators, cars, and other places where doors need to be closed. When anxiety becomes so intense and pervasive that it causes unwanted psychological distress and/or maladjustment, it is necessary to worry that these fears may develop into phobias.
Phobias without age-specific fears are illogical because there is no real danger. It is estimated that only 3-8% of the population exhibits extreme fear (King et al., 1988). Simple phobias are seen only in a small proportion of children, and a small proportion of them are referred for treatment (Silverman & Nelles, 1990). It is believed that the number of children referred for treatment because of their fear is less than the number of adults. This may indicate that parents are unaware of their children’s fears, and that at the same time, the number of trained professionals who can deal with children’s problems is relatively few.
The literature shows that mild fears or simple phobias are developmental events that are temporary and resolve over time (Silverman & Nelles, 1990). For more complex fears, studies have proven that treatment shortens recovery time, which is estimated to be 1-5 years without treatment (Agras, Chapin, & Oliveau, 1972; Hampe, Noble, Miller, & Barrett, 1973). Considering the distress engendered by these extreme fears, psychotherapy seems to be the safer method to provide relief than to let the fear take its course.
Children with extreme fears are often not brought to the attention of mental health professionals in a timely manner. In a study of children with simple phobias, Strauss and Last (1993) found that on average, these children were brought into treatment 3 years after their fear began. In addition, children with debilitating fears may be brought into therapy with another problem, and the fear may arise while their functioning is fully examined. When the focus is fear, treatment is often sought when the fear is significantly involved in the child’s or family’s life. For example, some children cannot benefit from school or other age-appropriate activities because they cannot be separated from their parents because of their fears; some are afraid to use elevators and therefore have to use the stairs; some children are afraid of school, their peers, or other everyday events.
The important issue here is; It is the parents’ awareness of their children’s fear and phobia early on, and taking steps towards solving the problem by resorting to expert help instead of putting pressure on or criticizing the child. Experts who can help parents in these matters can be psychological counselors, pedagogues and child psychiatrists.
Healthy days, healthy generations.
Serap Melek Sergeant KILIÇ
Family Therapist – Pedagogue