Childhood Fears - What's Normal vs. Abnormal?
How do parents know if their child's fears are age appropriate or related to something more serious, like an anxiety disorder (e.g. a Specific Phobia)? To answer this question, it is important to consider the following:
1) Are these fears developmentally appropriate? Children often have fears that come and go depending on their developmental stage, and they generally do not require intervention. They are a normal part of child development, and can help them prepare for challenges and develop safety behaviours.
Common fears by age group include:
0-1 years old: Loud noises, sudden movements, strangers, and separation from caregivers.
2-3 years old: Large animals, loud noises, the dark, snakes, and separation from caregivers.
4-7 years old: Bodily injury, "bad" people, separation from caregivers, ghosts, monsters, the dark, thunder and lightning, being kidnapped, and being alone.
8-12 years old: The dark, intruders or robbers, weapons, being alone, bad dreams, bodily harm, strangers, academic achievement, and getting sick.
13+ years old: Crime, being hurt or kidnapped, being alone, war, academic achievement, failure at school, tests, punishment, and family concerns.
2) How do these symptoms impact your child's level of functioning? Is your child still able to function (e.g. attend school, sleep well at night, or attend social gatherings etc...) or is your child so distressed that they can't function as well as they used to? When functioning is impaired, it's a sign that this normative fear may have developed into something more serious like a Specific Phobia and may require intervention. Specific Phobias are unreasonable fears that are generally more serious, intense, and persistent. Specific Phobias are not age specific and they often lead to avoidance behaviours.
What can you do to help your child overcome these fears successfully?
- Foster your child's independence in order to build their self-esteem and self-efficacy (i.e. their belief in their ability to succeed or accomplish a task effectively).
- Model positive coping in fearful situations. Children often learn what to be scared of from others around them, including parents. By modelling brave and healthy coping behaviours, children will learn these coping skills as well.
- Don't accommodate or enable the fear. A parent's natural instinct is to reassure and comfort their child. The problem is that through repeated reassurance giving, your child does not learn to face their fears themselves or talk themselves out of scary situations. Reassure your child no more than once and then ask them to answer their own questions regarding a feared event or situation. This will help them develop positive self-talk and eventually internalize this way of thinking.
- Do not encourage avoidance of feared situations. For example, if your child doesn't want to sleep in their own room, do not encourage this behaviour (unless you are comfortable bed sharing long-term). When a child calls home from school requesting to come home due to anxiety, do not agree to pick them up but instead encourage them to face their fears.
- Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) including exposure exercises can be valuable in treating Specific Phobias.
- Anxiety BC has some excellent resources online for parents related to Specific Phobias in children: https://www.anxietybc.com/parenting/my-anxiety-plan-specific-phobia
In conclusion, many childhood fears are normal and are developmentally appropriate. Monitor the intensity of your child's fears and their level of functioning. If you are concerned that the fears are abnormal, consult with a registered Clinical Psychologist for further help and resources. Many registered Clinical Psychologists are trained in CBT techniques.
Robinson, E. H., Rotter, J. C., Fey, M. A., & Robinson, S. L. (1991). Children's fears: Toward a preventive model. School Counselor, 38(3), 187-202.