What to Do About My Child’s Fears and Phobias?

Fear_courageNot too long ago, a friend asked me for advice about how to help her 9-year old daughter who has developed a fear of death. This young girl expressed repeatedly to her mom that she was afraid her mom and dad were going to die and then what would happen to her. Her fear seemed to stem from her grandfather’s recent minor surgery but it was becoming an issue that was affecting her mood, behaviour, and sleep. My friend was concerned about how to approach this topic with her daughter as well as how to reassure and help her.

It is common for children to develop fears at different ages and the types of fears generally change over time. Importantly, fears are not necessarily bad.
Fears can be protective in that they can teach children to avoid certain dangers, such as touching a hot stove or running into a busy street. A phobia develops when a fear is persistent, intense, and unreasonable about a specific object or situation.


What Are Common Childhood Fears?

Infants and Toddlers:

  • Separation from primary caregiver(s)
  • Strangers
  • loud noises
  • large objects

  • Preschoolers (ages 3 to 6) have fears that are not usually based in reality:

  • The dark
  • Monsters (in the closet, under the bed, etc) and ghosts
  • Noises at night
  • Thunder
  • Animals, such as dogs

  • Boy_closing_eyes_and_earsSchool-Aged Children (ages 6 to 12) develop fears that reflect real-life circumstances:

  • school performance, such as test anxiety, oral presentations
  • thunderstorms and natural disasters, such as earthquakes, floods
  • physical health, shots, illness, injury, blood, and death
  • robbers, burglars
  • being left alone
  • spiders and other insects
  • How Do You Help Your Child?

    It is important to talk to your child, really listen, and provide support. Their feelings are real and should be acknowledged. Have your child tell you exactly what he or she fears. Write out the fears and see if you can help your child identify the misperceptions or “story” that the brain is telling about the fear. Try to help your child challenge the “story” and come up with more accurate thoughts about the fear. Maybe have your child think about how friends or other children cope with the same situation. By even just talking with you about the fears, your child may perceive the fears as less powerful.

    Teach your child some relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing and muscle relaxation. By slowing down the breath and inhaling and exhaling completely, your child will start to feel calmer and in greater control. Similarly, you can practice tensing and relaxing different muscles of the body to help your child learn to release stress in the body.

    fear_stop_signTeach your child how to boss back their worries and fears. Have your child practice talking back to their fears so that they feel empowered (e.g., “I’m okay. It won’t hurt me. My parents will let me know if something isn’t safe“). One way to do that is to help your child get angry towards the fear (e.g., “You’re not going to control me! I’m bigger and tougher than you!”) because when a different emotion competes with fear, it diminishes the fear.

    If possible, try to find ways to add humour and fun into dealing with the fears. For example, sing a song, tell a story, make funny faces, or dance in the “monster-filled” or dark closet. Make silly drawings of the monsters. Be creative in finding ways to inject some fun into the feared situation.

    Create a fear hierarchy and use systematic desensitization. That is, break down the feared situation into gradual steps. Rate the steps in terms of how scary each one is (on a scale of 1 to 10) and help your child to slowly face each step. Go at your child’s pace with what feels comfortable. Repeat each step until it no longer evokes anxiety before moving on to the next challenge. For example, for a fear of bees, the steps could be: looking at pictures of bees, doing research about bees, getting increasingly closer to a dead bee in a jar, holding the jar, spending time near flowers with live bees.

    Practice often. All efforts to approach, instead of to avoid, the feared situation should be reinforced, praised, and rewarded. Make sure to celebrate your child’s successes.

    In sum, it is normal for children to experience fears at different stages of their development. Most children will outgrow their fears and will not require professional intervention. Importantly, there are a variety of strategies that you, as a parent, can implement to help your child overcome their fears. There are also excellent recommended resources available to guide you as well as useful books for anxious children. However, when your child’s fears or phobia interferes with their day-to-day functioning, it may be best to see a psychologist for treatment.

    As always, I welcome your comments, questions, and feedback.

    Best wishes,
    Dr. Stephanie

    Photos at top and bottom left courtesy of Stuart Miles / Freedigitalphotos.net
    First photo at right courtesy of Prawny / Freedigitalphotos.net
    Photo at right courtesy of David Castillo Dominici / Freedigitalphotos.net

    2 thoughts on “What to Do About My Child’s Fears and Phobias?”

    1. My 9 year old granddaughter has suddenly started some kind of fear at school we have took her to the Dr had blood work done all was ok my daughter is a teacher at her school same grade 3 Dr and we tried counceiing nothing work she claims she not begin bullied she throws a fit and wants to go see the council as soon as she gets to school she very friendly verbal child out going has lots of friends she does have. Sister that’s 15 and a little sister that 3 a very secure family life this started about 7 weeks ago out of no where’s we r at are wits end trying to figure things out and it not just School she basically doesn’t want to go no where’s at all which it totally not like her she crys at drop of a hat she not sleeping good at all we have tried breathing techniques we talked to her about her fears she just shrugs her shoulders and won’t tell us anything what’s wrong it’s breaking our hearts any suggestions would be helpful

      • Thank you for taking the time to write. It sounds like it has been a very difficult time for you, your granddaughter, and the rest of the family. Given the level of distress and the impact her anxiety is having on her daily functioning, I would strongly recommend seeking professional help from a child psychologist, psychiatrist, or other mental health professional. That person will be able to guide you and offer the help and support you all need to cope with this situation.
        Best wishes,
        Dr. Stephanie

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