Phobias are no fun and, be it spiders, needles, hair washing, dogs or buttons, small children’s fears can quickly get out of control. Here’s what you can do to help

From hysteria at the sight of strange dogs to horror around spiders and a dread of hair washing, fear is a part of childhood. Babies instinctively jump, react and cry if they see something that frightens them and, as they grow, most children experience moments of terror. While the object or situation causing the fear may seem strange – even funny – the fear is very real and needs careful handling.

The first question to ask is: is this a fear or a phobia? Fears often go away by themselves when a child realises that they will come to no harm and becomes familiar with whatever terrified them. A phobia is more serious and is defined as excessive anxiety around an object or situation that lasts for six months or longer. This is fear that is debilitating – similar to a panic attack – and symptoms may include rapid heart rate, sweating, dizziness and a feeling of being out of control.

The worst thing we can do is to laugh or tell children not to be silly or babyish. They need to trust they will be kept safe, so comfort, hugs and reassurance are vital. For some children, the fear is fuelled by their imagination (monsters under the bed), while for others it is a worry set off by real events they have heard about. Extreme phobias inhibit behaviour – for instance, a child may avoid playing at a friend’s house because of their dog.

“The worst thing we can do is to laugh or tell children not to be silly or babyish”

 Talking, asking questions and getting your child to describe their fear are key. Here, other adults and teachers can help, and it’s important to share your concerns. If real distress continues over a sustained period of time, a chat to your GP is the first step. They may recommend cognitive behavioural therapy or other another talking therapy delivered by a specialist professional.

Parent power: Tackling tiny terrors before they become big phobias
Children’s fears may become ‘hard-wired’ at home, making it important to manage our own phobias

Finding courage

Some fears – strange dogs, for example – are common among children and completely understandable; it’s vital to help with that particular fear through familiarisation and patience because a hysterical child who screams or runs is at far more risk of being bitten than a child who remains calm and stands still. Other fears may become ‘hard wired’ at home because we unwittingly pass on our own anxieties. So, if you scream at the sight of wasps, have palpitations around dentists or need a stiff gin before getting in a lift – hard as it sounds – try and work on your dread to avoid passing it on. As one parent put it: “I lived in horror of encountering spiders until I had my daughter and realised I had to work on my own fear for her sake.”

Further reading: Children’s lies and how to deal with them