A fear is just a condition of your mind and a phobia is an intense, persisting fear. A fear for a child may keep on changing as he or she grows. Learn how some childish fears turn into phobias and a relationship between phobia and fear.
All individuals are afraid of something or the other. Fear is a natural reaction to certain stimuli. Fear is an important feeling because it teaches children that certain objects or events are unsafe. For example, a child who is afraid of being burnt is not likely to play with matchsticks or start a fire. The experience a child gains in dealing with his fears enables him to improve his decision-making skills, as he grows older. It helps him to distinguish between what is safe and what he needs to avoid.
Having fears is a normal response to situations. It is a necessary part of growth for a child. However, not all children experience the same fears. Even for one child, fears depend on his age, maturity level, etc. In many cases, the fear is in response to an external stimulus. Fears keep changing, as a child grows older.
- A baby will have ‘stranger fear’. When the baby is approached by people he does not know, he tends to cling to his parents.
- A toddler suffers ‘separation fear’. If he is separated from one or both parents for a few hours, he may become distressed emotionally.
- A child below seven usually fears unreal things such as monsters under the bed or ghosts in the cupboard. These fears are usually a manifestation of another fear like being afraid of darkness.
- Between the ages of eight and twelve, a child’s fears deal with real circumstances such as physical injury, failing exams, and natural disasters.
When Fears Turn into Phobias
As a child becomes older, a fear may disappear completely or be replaced by another one. This is mostly seen with fears that are age-dependent. Occasionally, a particular fear may persist into adulthood. This is more likely to happen if the fear is in response to an experience. For example, a child who is bitten by a spider may grow up to retain his dislike of spiders.
Sometimes, a fear begins to take a greater hold over the child. If the fear becomes intense and causes severe reactions, it is classified as a phobia. The difference between a fear and a phobia is that the phobia cannot be tolerated. If the child encounters the object or event causing the phobia, he experiences extreme anxiety. This anxiety can become a source of distress to the child as well as the other family members.
Determining if the Child Has a Phobia
Parents usually cannot distinguish when a child is suffering from a phobia. However, there are a few ways to determine how much a particular fear is affecting the child. The first question to ask is if the fear is age-appropriate. Fear is a part of normal development; hence, it should not be ignored. If the fear is the same as that experienced by other children of his age, chances are the fear will diminish with time. Therefore, there is no real cause for concern.
Another point to consider is how the fear affects the child’s daily life. Phobias have a tendency to create havoc in a child’s personal, academic, and social life. If it is possible to minimize how much contact the child has with the fear stimulus, it may help him deal with the fear. Fear can sometimes be conquered by a simple change in the child’s daily schedule. For example, say the child is displaying a fear of dogs because he is afraid of a particular dog on his way to school. If his route to school is altered, the child will not come in contact with that dog anymore and he will no longer be afraid. However, if the child has a phobia of dogs, this step will not make him feel less afraid of the animals.
Most phobias do not need any special help since the child himself is able to deal with them. However, if a phobia affects a child’s daily life, he many require professional help to deal with it. Getting rid of a phobia merely involves finding a strategy to overcome the situation.
MANAGING THEIR FEARS
You have to understand that your child’s early fearlessness stems from the fact that ignorance is bliss. What they don’t know can’t hurt them. This is why the same child that cheerfully put her hand between the jaws of a dog, will later run away screaming at the sight of a barking dog. Somewhere along the way she has learnt that dogs can bite. As the child grows older, her imagination and curiosity develop side by side. She learns the potential dangers of certain actions and objects and the reasons why it is so. As she makes these connections, her awareness makes her cautious and sometimes frightened.
It has been observed that these fears develop more often in children for whom feeding and toilet training have been contentious issues, or in those who have overprotective parents or who have been regularly warned or cautioned against doing certain things. On the other hand, some children are just born sensitive.
Fear of the dark
Fear of the dark is one of the most common childhood fears. This is also a fear that adults can most easily identify with. The average adult is not as confident and even a little shaky in the dark. The lack of the ability to see clearly acts as a spur to the imagination leading most people to imagine that somebody is creeping up on them. If your child is scared of the dark you can indulge her by leaving her bedroom door open or leaving a night light on. Keep her well occupied with games and other activities throughout the day so that she has no time to brood on her fears. In time, she will realize that there is nothing to fear.
Sometimes children develop fears of tangible things like dogs, cockroaches, cars, men in uniforms, etc. It is not necessary for the child to have had a frightening experience with any of the objects of their fears. It will certainly not help to coerce them to overcome their fear by forcing them to confront the objects of their fears. There is a good chance that dragging your screaming child towards a dog or throwing her into a swimming pool is going to backfire. Children most often outgrow these fears themselves. Sometimes they find that acting out the fear, like pulverizing a stuffed toy dog, is therapeutic.
Fear of death
Some children are scared of death and dying. They cannot understand what happens to their pets or people who die. This is not surprising as adults themselves are confused by death. Adults themselves find it difficult to comprehend the finality of it all and its relation to life. So how do you explain it to a child? Some parents choose to explain death in religious terms. They tell their child that the deceased has gone up to God in heaven. On the other hand, parents can just deal with death by saying that the person was old, weak and too tired to go on living. It is important that parents maintain a casual air and reassure their child that they will be around for years and years to come.
A positive approach
Always keep in mind that while you may not understand the child’s fear, it is very real to her. Ridiculing the fear or chastising your child for being a coward is not going to make the situation any better. Encourage her to talk about her fear. You must instill confidence in her by assuring her that nothing bad is going to happen and that you are right by her side. While it is important to be sympathetic, do not overdo it. Your child may get the message that her fears are justified.