Most of us can think of certain things or situations that make us feel afraid. However, there are some things for which no amount of reassurance completely takes away our feelings of fear. Phobias are similar to the fears that we all have, but a person with a phobia feels extreme anxiety, and even terror, at the thought of coming into contact with their feared thing or situation. This can lead the person to avoid situations where they think they might come into contact with their feared thing or situation, which may limit their activities or enjoyment of life.
Phobias often start in early childhood but they can develop at any time throughout life. If children see other children or adults appearing frightened by a situation, it is likely they will copy the behaviour and feel fear. For example, if a mum shows a fear of spiders, her child is likely to copy her behaviour.
As we grow up, phobias can also develop from our own thinking. Children or young people may have experienced a sense of overwhelming fear or panic in a particular situation leaving them with a very strong desire to avoid a similar experience. They may not be able to recall the original event but a phobia still develops.
Things to think about
- Consider the age of the child or young person as it is normal for them to be afraid of different things at different stages of growing up. For example, it is not unusual for a 3 year old to be afraid of the dark or for a teenager to squeal at a spider.
- Has the child or young person had a direct experience that has scared them, e.g. being bitten by a dog or stung by an insect? Phobias can also start because a young person witnesses or hears a story about a frightening situation.
- Has the phobia been learned or picked up from another person? Are family members helping to maintain the phobia by showing their own fear?
- Is embarrassment or fear of getting into a panic increasing the child or young person’s avoidance behaviour?
- Is the child or young person benefiting from their avoidance behaviour, such as extra attention from adults or friends?
Think about your response
Remember that the phobia is very personal to the child or young person.
If you have experienced a phobia yourself, this can be useful in helping the child or young person but can also influence how you respond as you may be less inclined to become involved or may become too involved. It is important to be aware of your own response to help the child or young person effectively.
What you can do
- Remember that the child or young person’s feelings of fear are real to them and they cannot easily relax or recognise that the thing or situation is not threatening.
- Remember that if the child or young person is distressed, distract them by talking about normal things or allow them to leave the situation to go somewhere quiet and relaxing, but stay with them.
- Explain that you understand how scared they are and how real the phobia is to them.
- Explain that their physical and emotional symptoms are normal and not life-threatening.
- To get a better understanding of their phobia:
- Ask them about their phobia and feelings of anxiety to find out how much it interferes with their daily life.
- Find out who or what might be reinforcing their phobia, for example family members or worrying about fainting or having a panic attack.
- Find out how long they have had the phobia, and if there is anything else going on, e.g. exams, family problems or bullying.
- Challenge any irrational thoughts the child or young person has but don’t minimise the intensity of their feelings.
- Talk to the child or young person about phobias, how they develop and that avoiding the thing or situation will encourage the phobia to continue.
- Set small achievable targets with the child or young person to help them become more confident when dealing with the thing or situation they have a phobia about.
- Encourage them to get plenty of exercise and make time for relaxation.
- With the child or young person's permission, ensure that other key people around the child or young person are aware that they have a phobia of a specific thing or situation.
Anxiety Canada, self-help website: www.anxietycanada.com/parenting/parent-child
Mindshift App, to help young people manage anxiety: www.anxietycanada.com/resources/mindshift-app
Worrinots App, to help children cope with worries and anxieties: www.worrinots.com
Who to contact if you're still concerned
For parents and carers
Please contact your health visitor, school, GP or other professional involved with your family.
Please consult with other professionals involved or the named person, and to help identify the most appropriate support, go to: www.nhsfife.org/choosingtherightsupport