By Vanessa Rasmussen, © 2004, All rights reserved.

Everyone, from the youngest child to the oldest adult, experiences anxieties and fears at one time or another. A phobia is an identifiable and persistent fear that is excessive or unreasonable and is triggered by the presence or anticipation of a specific object or situation. Children and adolescents with one or more phobias consistently experience anxiety when exposed to the specific object or situation.

All healthy children have fears and worries; indeed, well defined fears mark different developmental stages. Children may develop fears from a traumatic experience (e.g. attack by a dog), but for some children, there is no clear event that causes the fear to arise. Some children become fearful simply by watching another child acting scared. A certain amount of fear is healthy and understandable. When you teach your child not to accept candies from strangers or not to ride the bicycle without a helmet, you are teaching them caution. You teach the child to be afraid of the consequences as they are not desirable outcomes.

When children's fears persist beyond the age when they are appropriate, and begin to interfere with their daily functioning, they cause concern. Common phobias include fear of animals, blood, heights, thunderstorms, closed spaces, darkness or flying. In children and adolescents, the identified fear must last at least six months to be considered a phobia rather than a transient fear.

Types of phobias seen in children and adolescents include the following:

  • Phobia of a specific thing or situation where a child completely avoids the phobic situation or thing and it affects with his/her normal day to day activities.
  • Phobia of one or more social or performance situations in an age appropriate setting with others within the same age group such as school play.
  • Agoraphobia or fear of open spaces such as being outside or leaving home alone related to one or more phobias or the fear of having a panic attack.
  • Often times a generally talkative child suddenly shuts up and acts as if he/she does not understand the instructions.

Fortunately, most phobias are quite treatable. In general, they are not a sign of serious mental illness requiring many months or years of therapy. However, if the anxieties of a child persist and interfere with his/her enjoyment of day-to-day life, the child might benefit from some professional help from a psychiatrist or psychologist who specializes in treating phobias.

Often therapists suggest that the child is exposed to the phobic object or situation slowly, steadily and in small doses. This gradual process is called desensitization, meaning that the child will become a little less sensitive to the source of his/her phobia each time he/she confronts it. Ultimately, the child will no longer feel the need to avoid the situation that has been the basis of the phobia. However, follow this procedure only under the supervision of a psychiatrist.

It is very supportive of the parents when dealing with a child's fears to admit their own childhood fears, especially if the parent had similar fears when young. Parents can indicate that they understand just how devastating such fears can be and that they are ready to reassure and comfort whenever the child feels a need.

Copyright 2001, 2004. All rights reserved. Any reproduction of this article in whole or in part without written or verbal permission is strictly prohibited. For information about reprinting this article, contact the copyright owner: Vanessa Rasmussen, Ph.D, Starting a Day Care Center,