This week I was speaking with a teacher about a child in her class who is “afraid of almost everything, water, sand, other kids”.  Of course, I wondered about sensory issues and the child will now see a pediatric occupational therapist as well as a developmental pediatrician for some in-depth help. But it made me think, you all might want a bit of scoop on fears, worries and phobias. So here you go….When is a worry or a fear actually a phobia?

What is a phobia?

Fears are common and expected in childhood; however, for some children and teens, their fears can become very severe over time, and even develop into a phobia. A phobia is an intense, unreasonable or exaggerated fear of a specific object or situation.

How common are phobias in childhood?

On average, specific phobias begin in childhood, between seven to eleven years with most cases starting before age ten.

Approximately 5% of children and 16% of adolescents will have a specific phobia in their lifetime.

What causes phobias?

A child may have a phobia of something specific dogs, spiders, or snakes, for example. Research suggests that phobias may run in families.  Both genetic and environmental factors (life experience) can contribute to developing a phobia.

Some children and teens develop a phobia after being exposed to a traumatic or frightening event. Their concerns begin as rational, a natural reaction to a frightening event. But when the child catastrophizes the event, or does not have the thinking skills to cope with or understand the event, sometimes the fear becomes larger than the situation warrants.  Young children might also generalize an experience.

As an example, a child might be bitten by a white dog and then fear mashed potatoes or vanilla ice cream. This can be regarded as an error by the brain. The brain over-responds to a variety of stimuli that are similar to the original event.                                 

How do fears and phobias affect children, as they grow older?

If a child is not helped to understand the fear and the meaning of the worry, he may feel powerless and thus may worry more. The key is to help the child feel powerful over his thoughts, feelings and experiences. The more coping skills he has, the better he will fair as he grows up.

Children often fear something because they think it will cause pain or from a previous experience, should a parent push their child to overcome their fear or let it happen overtime?

Research shows that children are not usually reassured out of phobias. It’s best to help your child become an expert in their own anxiety and worries. Help your child develop the analytic skills to think about their phobias in a new way. Make them “brain experts.” Help them explore their fears or worries and then empower them to develop new thoughts, feelings and behaviors regarding their fears.

  •   What makes you worried?
  •   What do you think when you are worried?
  •   What do you fear will happen?
  •   How is your brain responding to your fears or worries?
  •   How BIG is your worry?
  •   How big is the “true threat” of what worries you?
  •   How can we “think differently” about this fear?
  •   What else can we say to ourselves?
  •   How can you help your brain calm down?
  •   How can you help your brain see this fear differently?
  •   What can you say to yourself when you begin to feel worried?
  •   What can you do to calm yourself down?
  •   How can I help you best when you feel worried?

What is a way to change a child’s fear around and look at it as a positive?

Slowly facing the fear or worry in a safe way, builds up a sequence of new life experiences that may aid your child in developing a new perspective.

Help your child with a strategy that aids your child in evaluating the size of the true threat compared with the size of the worry. Using thermometers or balls can help in this regard. You are helping your child see how BIG the worry is.

Here is a helpful printable from our next book 70 Play Activities.

How BIG is My Worry-

As an example, if you live in Minnesota and your child will not go out for fear of snakes, it’s important for your child to know how rare a snake is in Minnesota. Remember, phobias are “overgrown fears.” They are bigger than reality dictates. You can help your child shrink those fears down to size with collaboration and communication. 

For more help on phobias here are a few books you might take a peek at.


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kenney-team-lynneLynne Kenney, PsyD, is a mom, pediatric psychologist, educator, speaker and co-author with Wendy Young of BLOOM: 50 Things to Say, Think and Do with Anxious, Angry and Over-the-Top Kids. Dr. Lynne integrates neuroscience, nutrition, exercise and music research to enhance brain function and learning in children. Interact with us now on our NEW FB page. She has a variety of parenting and education tools to help parents, clinicians and teachers available HERE. Dr. Lynne teaches Play Math to teachers and parents and does over 50 workshops a year. Learn more about how Dr. Kenney can speak with your school or clinic live or via webinar HERE.