Spiders, thunderstorms, and the dark – kids of all ages have worries and fears. These natural experiences, however, can become interruptive and almost debilitating for some kids who don’t develop tools to handle their fears and eventually move beyond them.
A report published in the Journal of Child Psychology, Fears, Worries, and Scary Dreams in 4- to 12-Year-Old Children: Their Content, Developmental Patterns, and Origins, distinguishes between the differences of fears, worries, and scary dreams and addresses the unique characteristics of each.
- Worry – a fearful thought process (absence of actual danger)
- Fear – an unsettling emotion that is a response to danger (potential for actual danger)
- Scary Dreams – occur during sleep and are separate phenomena for anxiety (even though kids might then worry about their dreams – they are two separate anxious feelings)
The authors of this report also published the data from extensive studies regarding kids and worry, fear, and scary dreams. The results show that in children between the ages of 4 and 12, these emotions are quite common.
- 75.8% of kids reported fears, most often of animals, followed by imaginary creatures, being kidnapped, and social threats.
- 67.4% of kids reported feelings of worry, most often about physical harm, death, test performances, separation from parents, and anxiety over scary dreams.
- 80.5% of kids reported experiencing scary dreams, most often involving imaginary creatures, physical harm to self or others, being kidnapped, animals, and death or dying.
- An interesting trend shows that fears are most prevalent in the 4- to 6-year age range, while worry tends to set in as kids grow older.
- The worries also change in scope, with increases in social acceptance and performance worries as kids age.
- The types of fears and worries also change with their ages – from monsters ranking high for younger groups, but physical injury scoring higher for older age groups.
Does My Child Have a Phobia?
Phobias, compared to these other anxiety filled emotions and situations, tend to become debilitating to certain degrees. The American Psychiatric Association defines phobias as:
“…irrational and excessive fear of an object or situation. In most cases, the phobia involves a sense of endangerment or a fear of harm.”
Phobias vary in type and severity, but are generally broken down into three broad categories.
- Social phobia (fear of social situations – which can be extremely life-altering)
- Agoraphobia (fear of being trapped)
- Specific phobia (of which there are 4 main types)
- Natural environment (i.e. storms)
- Animals (my daughter’s phobia of spiders – also known specifically as arachnophobia)
- Medical (i.e. fear of seeing blood or getting shots)
- Situational (i.e. fear of bridges or heights)
How Can I Help My Child Overcome Fears, Worries, and Phobias?
Obviously phobias will be more challenging to overcome, but the same techniques can be used for all of these issues that arise from anxious feelings (extreme phobias are best addressed with your medical practitioner).
Gradual exposure – My daughter used to scream if she opened a magazine and even saw a picture of a spider. It was so bad that she asked her brothers to preview reading materials so there would be no surprises. We gradually encouraged her to look at photos of spiders, finding that once we took the element of surprise out of the equation that she was better able to handle the situation. We also talked about spiders when there was no immediate concern over them.
Positive modeling – I had to be careful not to even flinch if a spider dropped down right in front of me. At the pet store I would practically fake a love affair with the tarantulas in order to encourage a better view of these creatures. Modeling calm emotions that show you are at ease with the object of the fear helps to tone down the fear factor.
Security objects – We recently had our first storm of the season and my son calmly went to his room and produced his favorite stuffed animal and pillow and announced that when we needed to go to the basement that he was ready with his “comforts”. Help your kids identify simple objects they can use as tools to calm themselves.
Counter-conditioning – This technique involves helping your child replace his response to the fear or phobia with a relaxation technique. The newer, calmer behavior takes perseverance, but can be very beneficial.
Exposure treatments – Some physicians and patients swear by this approach, but I just can’t wrap my head around doing this with a child. It can sometimes involve a technique known as flooding, where the person is confronted with her worst fear, but is unable to escape the situation. The goal is to teach the person that there is nothing to fear. Sounds like I’d be signing myself up for family therapy and lots of resentment if I used that approach!
We saw giant leaps today as my daughter who used to feel physically ill when she even saw a picture of a spider disposed of one that was running across the costume room floor at her dress rehearsal for a play. A few years ago the play would likely have been interrupted by her screams and she would not have re-entered the room, but gradual exposure and calm responses have helped her to overcome her phobia so it is now only a worry she sometimes feels. She can recognize the changes in herself, and has a good sense of humor about it – she’s OK with spiders now if she sees it first (and we joke about how the spider has a greater chance of seeing her first because it might have many eyes).