When Fear Turns to Phobia

Although we often think of childhood as a time to be carefree, fear and anxiety are common experiences for nearly every child at some point or another. Whether it is fear of the dark, separation anxiety in a toddler, or fear of a specific event or object such as going to the dentist or seeing a dog across the street, being afraid is simply a part of the human experience. For most children, these moments are fleeting and easily managed by the loving reassurance of a parent or caregiver, but for others common fears such as these can become debilitating experience that need more attention.

Fear and its accompanying physical responses are like a fire alarm system. Like a smoke detector, our bodies are designed to perceive danger, emotional and physical, and send out an alarm (the physical and emotional responses) to alert us that we may be in danger. As anyone who has been scared by a movie or startled by a slamming door knows, sometimes we get the warning even when the danger isn't real. For most of us, that happens occasionally but in general our fear response is manageable and important, keeping us from dangerous situations. For a child with a phobia the fire alarm system has become hypersensitive to a specific trigger- like a sprinkler system that goes off every time you light a candle. The response is excessive in relationship to the perceived danger. Whether it is a paralyzing fear of a real but minimally dangerous situation such as a larger dog or a fear of something that does not pose a real threat such as thunderstorms, the internal experience of fear is real and must be addressed. The key is to help your child understand first that fear, however difficult to manage, is a valuable emotion and not one that we want to dismiss.

As adults, when we see a child with what we believe is an irrational or excessive fear our first instinct is often to minimize their experience. The desire to relieve your child's panic often triggers a very logic response in parents but before you try to convince your child that their fears are unfounded or silly, start by talking about the role fear plays in keeping them safe. Teaching children to evaluate the danger of a situation is an important part of treating their phobia but it is also crucial that you do not send the unintentional message that their fear can not or should not be trusted. Although in this situation fear has become distorted, in general we want our children to listen to their fears. Fear is that uneasy feeling that they may get around a stranger or when watching a friend try something risky at the playground- it is their first line of safety when you are not around and it is important to remind them of that.

The next step is to help your child understand that they can be in control of their response to fear. It is not necessary for them to ignore their fear and the automatic physiological response that it creates in order to regain control. Instead children can learn to identify the physical cues that tell them they are beginning to feel fearful and then learn to calm their bodies and their minds. It can be helpful to get your child to keep a feelings journal for a week or two (maybe longer depending on how often they encounter their specific phobia). As parents we are often aware of our children's responses to fear and anxiety; whether its a stomachache or …