What are phobias in children?

A phobia is an excessive fear of an object or situation. It’s a fear that lasts for at least 6 months. It is a type of anxiety disorder.

These are some different types of phobias:

  • Specific phobia. A child has anxiety when exposed to a certain object or situation. He or she stays away from the object or situation, dreads it, or endures it with so much fear that it interferes with normal activities. Some common phobias are a fear of animals, insects, blood, heights, or flying.
  • Panic disorder. A child feels an unpredictable, unexpected period of great fear or discomfort. He or she may have a panic attack. Symptoms include shortness of breath, dizziness, lightheadedness, shaking, fear of losing control, and a racing heartbeat. Symptoms can last for hours. But they often peak after 10 minutes.
  • Agoraphobia. This is a fear of open spaces, such as being outside or leaving home alone. It is related to one or more phobias or the fear of having a panic attack.
  • Social anxiety disorder. A child is afraid of one or more social or performance situations with others of the same age group. Examples are acting in a school play or giving a speech in front of the class.
  • Separation anxiety disorder. A child fears being apart from an attachment figure, such as a mother or father. This condition interferes with daily activities.
  • Selective mutism. A child is not able to speak in certain social situations.

What causes phobias in a child?

The cause of a phobia may be both genetic and environmental. A child may develop a phobia if he or she has a fearful first encounter with an object or situation. But experts don’t know if this exposure is needed. Some children may be more likely to develop a phobia.

What are the symptoms of phobias in a child?

Each child may have different symptoms when exposed to a phobia. But these are the most common:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Shortness of breath
  • Feeling of choking
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Upset stomach
  • Feeling dizzy or faint
  • Fear of losing control or going crazy
  • Fear of dying
  • Numbness
  • Chills or hot flashes

A child who has at least 4 of the symptoms may be having a panic attack. These symptoms may look like other health problems. Make sure your child sees his or her healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How are phobias diagnosed in a child?

A child psychiatrist or other mental health expert can diagnose a phobia. He or she will do a mental health evaluation of your child.

Panic disorder may be hard to diagnose. Your child may need a number of tests in a variety of settings.

How are phobias treated in a child?

Treatment will depend on your child’s symptoms, age, and general health. It will also depend on how severe the condition is.

Phobias can be treated. Your child may need:

  • Individual or cognitive behavioral therapy. A child learns new ways to control anxiety and panic attacks when or if they do happen.
  • Family therapy. Parents play a vital role in any treatment process.
  • School input. Consultation with the child’s school.
  • Medicines. Some children may feel better with medicines, such as those used to stop panic attacks.

How can I help prevent phobias in my child?

Experts don’t know how to prevent phobias in children and teens. But spotting and treating them early can ease symptoms and enhance your child’s normal development. It can also improve his or her quality of life.

How can I help my child live with phobias?

All children have fears at some point in their life. When untreated, phobias can become a lifelong issue. So treatment is important.

Here are things you can do to help your child:

  • Keep all appointments with your child’s healthcare provider.
  • Talk with your child’s healthcare provider about other providers who will be involved in your child’s care. Your child may get care from a team that may include counselors, therapists, social workers, psychologists, and psychiatrists. Your child’s care team will depend on your child’s needs and how serious the anxiety disorder and phobia are.
  • Tell others about your child’s phobia. Work with your child’s healthcare provider and schools to develop a treatment plan.
  • Reach out for support from local community services. Being in touch with other parents who have a child with an anxiety disorder and phobia may be helpful.

Key points about phobias in children

  • A phobia is an excessive fear of an object or situation. It lasts for at least 6 months.
  • Common phobias are a fear of animals, insects, blood, heights, or flying.
  • A child may develop a phobia if he or she has a fearful first encounter with an object or situation.
  • Symptoms include increased heart rate and trembling or shaking.
  • A mental health expert can diagnose a phobia.
  • Treatment may involve therapy and medicines.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your child’s healthcare provider:

  • Know the reason for the visit and what you want to happen.
  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
  • At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you for your child.
  • Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed and how it will help your child. Also know what the side effects are.
  • Ask if your child’s condition can be treated in other ways.
  • Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.
  • Know what to expect if your child does not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
  • If your child has a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
  • Know how you can contact your child’s provider after office hours. This is important if your child becomes ill and you have questions or need advice.