Phobias Part 1: Is Your Child’s Fear Normal or a Phobia?

Fear is common among children, but for 5 percent of them fear develop into a phobia, which is defined as an intense, persistent fear of a specific object or thing. How do parents tell the difference?

Fears are a common part of childhood. But in approximately 5 percent of children, this fear progresses into a phobia. As a parent, how can you tell if your child’s fear is normal or is a phobia?

What Defines Childhood Fears?

Many typical childhood fears occur at developmentally predictable stages.  For infants and toddlers (age 0-2), fear of loud noises, strangers, and separation from parents are common. For preschoolers (age 3-6), fears often include animals, the dark, and imaginary figures such as ghosts or monsters. During the school-aged years (age 7-16), more “realistic” fears are typical, such as public speaking, accidents or injuries, school performance, or natural disasters.

If your child is experiencing one of these common fears, but otherwise is functioning well at home, school, and with their friends, you probably don’t need to worry. These fears are usually temporary, resolve on their own, and don’t cause long-term difficulties. Reassuring your child and gently supporting them when they’re ready to face their fear in small, manageable doses, is often all that is needed.

Phobia: A Persistent Fear

A phobia, on the other hand, is defined as an intense, persistent fear of a specific object or situation; the fear is unrealistic or more intense than the actual danger involved.  In order to be diagnosed as a phobia, the fear must interfere with your child’s life in a significant way, and must be present for longer than six months. For example, your four year-old may get anxious around large dogs, and stay away from the neighbor’s fence (and thus the neighbor’s dog) while he’s playing in the yard for a few months. This would be a normal fear, but by contrast, a child with a dog phobia may refuse to go to school because they’re terrified of seeing a dog in the street.

Although phobias can have an impact on your child and your whole family, there are strategies you can use to assist your child if you believe they are struggling with a phobia. In my next blog post, I’ll discuss some of the things parents can do to help their child, and offer tips for deciding if outside help is needed.

Contributor: Kristen Davis-Coelho, Ph.D., Psychologist Renown Behavioral Health