A fear becomes a phobia when it is excessive, arises in response to imaginary dangers and impacts on the child’s life.
A phobia is a persistent, excessive and unreasonable fear of an object or situation. It is thought 5% of children and 16% of teenagers have a phobia in the UK.
It’s very normal for children to have fears about certain things – it is a natural stage of development. Children might be afraid of the dark, of dogs or going to the doctor. These fears are all part of how they begin to understand the world and will very often disappear over time.
Phobias are different from everyday fears as they usually become more severe as children get older. Children and teenagers with phobias will often feel ashamed about their fears, and try and hide them from others, particularly their peer group, because they worry they will be seen as overreacting.
Having a phobia can have a very real impact on your quality of life, particularly if your phobia is something that is present in every day life. If your teenager is afraid of the dark, going to sleepovers will be incredibly difficult. Having a phobia of dogs can make going to a park or a friend’s house impossible tasks.
Whilst we all have objects or situations that we don’t like and will positively try to avoid (spiders and snakes are the most common), those with a phobia have a very severe reaction that they simply can’t control.
Symptoms of a phobia include:
It is thought that phobias develop for both genetic and environmental reasons (nature and nurture).
We are hard wired to fear certain things – this reaction developed as a survival technique early humans used to temper their natural curiosity and keep them safe. We don’t fully understand the genetic reasons behind phobias but research has shown they often run in families.
Phobias arise for different reasons but a bad experience in early years can trigger a pattern of thoughts that result in a powerful fear of a situation – for instance if your child falls ill after having an injection, they may develop an ongoing fear to injections, which can get worse over time.
Children may also ‘learn’ to have a phobia - for instance if a close family member is afraid of spiders and the child witnesses them screaming when they see one, they may also develop that fear.
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As a first step, your child may benefit from an assessment with a psychiatrist – a doctor with expertise in mental health. Not only with this assessment look at the anxiety symptoms your child is experiencing, but will look at whether there are any other underlying factors or conditions that need to be considered, in order to find the most effective treatment.
Graded exposure techniques can be incredibly useful to help overcome the fear a child or teenager may have, but it needs to be carefully administered by an expert, as if done incorrectly can make the situation a lot worse and damage the child’s ability to trust.
If you're struggling with an emotional or mental health problem, call us now to make an appointment face-to-face or online - and take the first step in getting the support you need.