Childhood Fear vs. Childhood Phobia
Children are afraid of lots of things. It's normal - dealing with fears is an essential part of learning to live in a world where things are, quite frankly, scary. Some children, however, experience fear at a whole different level, according to experts. These children have actual phobias. Phobia is defined as an extreme, persistent, and life-disrupting fear. While basic fear is nature's way of keeping people from endangering themselves, phobia is escalated, seemingly irrational fear. The difficult part about determining whether a child has a fear or a phobia is understanding where the fear comes from, and if their behavior is out of terror or simply stubbornness.
In 2005, one family in the United Kingdom endured a tragedy that made the distinction irrelevant. When she was four years old, Sophie Waller came away from the dentist office with an accidental cut on her tongue. Sophie's fear of the dentist increased so much that when she needed to have a cracked tooth pulled at age eight, her parents took her to the hospital to be put under for the procedure. During the procedure, the doctors decided to pull all of her baby teeth to make things easier in the future. Upon waking, Sophie was told that all of her remaining baby teeth were gone. She refused to speak or eat, and ended up with a feeding tube. When the doctors felt she had made enough progress, Sophie went home, where she died two weeks later of starvation and dehydration.
Obviously, Sophie's aversion to having dental work led her to act irrationally. Whether she was expressing fear, defiance, or a combination of the two, her resulting starvation indicates a serious problem. No matter how angry, most children will eventually succumb to hunger. Jennifer L. Hartstein, a child adolescent psychologist in New York, hopes to raise awareness of childhood phobias, and has worked with many children coping with extreme fear and anxiety. "I think we tend to minimize it because we say, 'Oh, they're just being a kid, they'll grow out of it.' Yet, the earlier you intervene, the better the prognosis is," Hartstein explains.
7 Most Common Childhood Fears
ABC recently released a list of the top seven childhood phobias.Remember, the fears being referred to are not common, fleeting fears, but paralyzing, life-disrupting terrors:
1. The dentist: Sophie Waller is an extreme case, but many children fear the dentist without the memory of a bad experience.
2. Food: Not a fear of choking, but of the food itself. This can manifest in very young children.
3. Bugs, dogs, or cats: This is very common, and can stem from a frightening animal experience.
4. School: Some children extend their fear of a bully, teacher, or subject to include the school itself.
5. Vomiting: Formally termed "emetophobia," this phobia affects adults as well as children. It can cause people to avoid certain foods and riding in cars after eating.
6. Pigeons: This might not be so bad for someone living in the country, but city dwelling children might refuse to leave the house.
7. Allergic reactions: Fearing to eat foods that negatively impact your body is understandable, but some children fear that all food contains the allergen.
How to Help Your Child with Their Phobia
Kidshealth.org offers a list of suggestions for helping a child deal with phobias:
1. Recognize that the fear is real: Whether it seems trivial or not, accept it and try to get the child to talk about it.
2. Never belittle the fear: Telling the child to get over it may make them stop acting upset, but it will not solve the real problem.
3. Don't cater to fears: Do not drastically alter life to avoid the child being afraid. This will reinforce that the fear is correct.
4. Teach a child to rate their fear: Visualizing the fear on a scale, or as something that fills their body, could help to make it more tangible.
5. Develop coping strategies: Confronting the fear out loud, or gradually moving closer to it (if it is a place or being), can help the child see that they are strong. Relaxation exercises are also helpful. When these phobias become too large for the parents to handle, experts like Hartstein recommend that they seek a therapist's assistance. The therapist can then help the child rationalize their fears, and thereby overcome them.