4 Causes Of Childhood Fears And 11 Ways To Deal With It

check_icon Research-backed

Image: Shutterstock

IN THIS ARTICLE

Fear in children is a response to an unpleasant feeling perceived as a threat. Parents often teach children to be fearful and cautious of specific dangers such as deep water or fire. Here, fear acts as a positive emotion that helps keep children safe.

However, fear can become a cause for concern if the child develops a tendency to fear everything or a particular person/thing/event so excessively that it impacts their health. Determining the reasons for fear can help know if the child might require professional help to overcome it.

Read this post to know about the causes of fear in children and ways to support your child in confronting and overcoming their fear.

Is It Normal For Children To Have Fear?

Fear is both an innate and learned behavior and is a normal part of a child’s growing-up years. According to a study published in the Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, 75.8% of normal school-going children between the ages of four and 12 years report fears (1). The most common fear in children is the fear of darkness or being left alone in a dark room (2). Children may also have a fear of heights, fire, darkness, loud noises (thunderstorms), animals, or strangers.

Moreover, children’s fears may also vary based on their age. For instance, while very young children might have a fear of monsters, older children might have a fear of violence, nuclear wars, or theft. Fears are common among four- to six-year-olds and become even more prominent in seven- to nine-year-olds. The frequency gradually decreases in ten- to 12-year-olds (1).

Most children outgrow these fears eventually. You need not worry much about your child being fearful unless it is so intense. Sometimes, fear may become severe, extreme, and persistent and may turn into a phobia. Phobias are often irrational and extreme and may interfere with your child’s daily activities (2). Fear in a child becomes concerning when (3)

  • The child is fearful even in the physical absence of a trigger or constantly talks about scary objects.
  • The intensity of fear disrupts the child’s everyday activities. This could manifest in ways such as not going out to play for fear of injuries or not going to the bathroom for fear of spiders.
  • The child shows withdrawn behavior (avoiding social contact), panic attacks, etc.

Causes Of Fear In Children

Some children may be more fearful than others. They may have excessive or irrational fears, significantly affecting their own and their family’s lives. They may also show signs of an anxiety disorder. Potential reasons may include the following (4) :

  1. Genetic predisposition: Genetic susceptibility or predisposition may play a role in the temperament of children. That is why some children tend to be more sensitive and emotional than others.
  1. Anxious parent: Besides being an innate behavior, fear is also a learned behavior. In most cases, children mirror their parents’ behavior and actions, and fear and anxiety are no exception.
  1. Stressful incidents: An injury, major accident, death in the family, or parental separation can have an impact on the children.
  1. Overprotective parents: Over-caring parents can sometimes cause dependency in children. Such children are not only likely to feel more helpless but may also develop generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).

How To Deal With Fear In Children?

Fear, if not appropriately addressed, may develop into anxiety or even phobia. Let us discuss a few practical ways to help your child overcome their fears (2) (4) (5).

1. Take the fear seriously

Do not ignore the trigger. As trivial as it may seem to you, fear can cause discomfort and anxiety in your child. Begin by talking to them. Ask them about their fears and what makes them fearful. Things may worsen if the parents make fun of the child or force them to confront their fears.

2. Recognize worries

Instead of asking your child to just overcome their fears, let them know you understand their concerns and are ready to talk. The idea here is to affirm that you understand their fears but do not necessarily have similar fears.

3. Be there

Reassure them and ask them, “How can I help?” “How can I make you feel better?” Or “Are you feeling better now?” Hug them or hold them to make them feel secure and safe.

4. Help them relax

Helping the child relax is a good way to support them to overcome their fears temporarily. Try to lighten the situation – offer them water, loosen their clothing, switch on the light, or open the window – to make them feel relaxed and at ease.

5. Take it step by step

Don’t force the child not to feel or sense fear. Do systematic desensitization, that is, expose your child to the source of their anxiety one small step at a time and help eliminate their fears gradually. Make sure to praise them when they handle the situation well.

6. Don’t be too involved

When your child fears monsters under the bed or inside the cupboard, do not reassure their fears by looking under the bed or opening the cupboard. This may indicate that you also believe that monsters are hiding in the room.

7. Move on

Once you have reassured your child, it is time to move on. Don’t dwell on offering comfort. Instead, talk about how they should manage their fears themselves.

8. Talk it out

Ask your child the possible solutions that can help them feel better or more secure. Often, taking a toy or a comforter to bed can help them feel better. You can also offer suggestions to your child.

9. Allow expression

Children may have limited vocabulary and find it difficult to express their emotions and feelings. Nonetheless, encourage them to talk about their feelings and reach out to you.

10. Be patient

It is important to remember that change takes time. Be patient and consistent in your efforts. Praise the child by saying, “You are brave!” or “You got this!” You need to let them know that they can handle their own fears. You may need more tries for younger children to make the idea stick. So, be patient and persistent.

11. Seek professional help

Sometimes, a child can experience extreme fear, which may interfere with their daily activities. In such cases, parents may seek professional advice. Children can learn ways to handle their fears, and parents can support them by learning helping strategies.

Children are sensitive, and they can often get scared of different situations or objects which you may not find fearful. Generally, having fear is normal. However, excessive fear in children, that affects a child’ life, needs evaluation as it may indicate an underlying issue. If your child has excessive fear, trying simple solutions, such as helping them stay relaxed and talking things out can help pacify your child. Remember, unattended fear may cause mental issues like anxiety and phobia. So, seek professional help promptly if your child has excessive fear.

Key Pointers

  • Some fears are innate in children while they pick up others as they grow.
  • Fear of darkness, being left alone, animals are some of the common fears in children.
  • Genetic predisposition or stressful events in a child’s life may cause them to develop phobias.
  • Recognize their worries, help them relax, talk it out, or seek professional help if needed.

References:

MomJunction's articles are written after analyzing the research works of expert authors and institutions. Our references consist of resources established by authorities in their respective fields. You can learn more about the authenticity of the information we present in our editorial policy.
1. P Muris et al.; Fears, worries, and scary dreams in 4- to 12-year-old children: their content, developmental pattern, and origins; Journal of Clinical Child Psychology (2000).
2. Understanding Childhood Fears and Anxieties; American Academy of Pediatrics
3. Phobias Symptoms & Causes; Boston Children’s Hospital
4. Anxiety and fear in children; BetterHealth, Department of Health & Human Services, State Government of Victoria, Australia
5. How to Help Children Manage Fears; Child Mind Institute
The following two tabs change content below.

Dr. Elna Gibson

(MBChB, MMed, Paeds)
Dr. Elna Gibson is a general pediatrician. She did her MBChB and specialization as a pediatrician in South Africa at the University of Pretoria. She obtained MMed Pediatrics (masters) with distinction in 1993. As a young specialist, Dr. Gibson spent some time in the Netherlands, and then settled in the Vaal Triangle where she has practiced for 25 years. She... more

Sagari Gongala

Sagari was a math graduate and studied counseling psychology in postgraduate college, which she used to understand people better. Her interest in reading about people made her take up articles on kids and their behavior. She was meticulous in her research and gave information that could be of help to parents in times of need. An animal lover, vegan, and... more