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Fears and phobias in children and adolescents
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Prescriptions for Parents

Making Scientific Research Practical for Families

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Fears and Phobias

Fear, or anxiety, is a common emotion experienced by everyone, and can often be beneficial as the emotion heightens our state of alertness and may protect us from dangerous situations. Even infants demonstrate the fear of strangers, and, interestingly, children’s fears change in a predictable manner as they age and mature.  

We are learning the importance of parental responses to these fears, as a recent study from York University showed that preschoolers’ reactions to immunizations were influenced by their parents’ earlier responses when the children were immunized as infants.  

As parents, we need to be mindful of how we respond to our children’s fears.  We want to assist our children as they face and, hopefully, overcome their fears. In order to help our children with their fears, parents must acknowledge their own fears and temper their personal reactions when their children are present. We also need to recognize when our children’s fears have become so serious that they would benefit from professional help

In this newsletter, we will provide information on age-specific fears, along with helpful ways parents can respond.  .  

Infants and Toddlers

One of the first fears demonstrated by infants between 4 and 9 months of age isstranger anxiety." As infants recognize their parents’ faces, they become aware of those individuals who are different. 

Toddlers often progress to develop a fear of darkness, loud noises, large objects, and people viewed as “different” (like Santa Claus or clowns).

Parents should NEVER

  • ridicule or make fun of a fearful toddler, or a fearful child of any age
  • use the fear as a threat or express indifference to the fear.  

Instead, acknowledge the fear and reassure the child you are there to protect them.

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Preschoolers


Preschoolers thrive on routine and structure, so they will often develop fear or anxiety when faced with change – a housing move, a new daycare or school, a new sibling.

They are also developing a vivid imagination, so fears may reflect that – “monsters” under the bed or in the closet, as well as experiencing nightmares.

Your response as a parent will help your child respond appropriately to fears and eventually overcome them. Remember to calmly identify the emotion and provide information and NEVER ridicule your child’s fear.
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Elementary Age

Children of this age often develop anxiety concerning their performance at school and extra-curricular events as well as fears related to life circumstances they anticipate might happen to them like illness, natural disasters, kidnappings, shootings, parental divorce or death.  

Take the time to discuss fears with your child and do not make assumptions

Children are often more willing to talk about their day as they are lying in bed at night. Try spending some quiet time with them each evening and look for opportunities to explore fears your child may be having

Also, avoid overexposure to media, especially when tragedies have occurred.

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Adolescents

Fears during adolescence include bodily image concerns, life experiences and performance

Adolescents may not openly discuss their fears with you so spend time with your adolescent to provide opportunities for discussion. Perhaps, acknowledge your fears as a child – and discuss coping strategies you found helpful.

Parents must be aware of the fears in order to be able to provide support. Your adolescent's fears could be related to some traumatic experience that you as a parent are not aware ofso please, take the time to listen and ask careful questions.

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When to seek help


Phobias are fears that become extreme, severe, and persistent – and occur in about 5% of children. Most phobias are eventually overcome, but some clues that it is time to consider seeking help include:
  • Your child’s fear is not age- appropriate, like a 6th grader afraid of the dark
  • Your child’s fear or anxiety prevents your child from enjoying normal life experiences
  • Your child’s fear is adversely affecting your family’s life and daily activities
Researchers at Virginia Tech are utilizing a single session treatment for children and adolescents experiencing phobias in which the child lists those situations that provoke fear and is gradually led through the items, first to express what s/he fears will happen, then to test their predictions.
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