Dawson Penney’s second birthday party started out in typical festive fashion, with cake, games and treats. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary—that is, until party guests showed up with balloons. “He started screaming,” recalls his mom, Susanne, of Hanmer, Ont. “We thought he was joking at first.”
But it was no joke. Penney says her son was “deathly afraid” of balloons for the next 2½ years. Whenever he saw the offending inflatables, “he would run and hide, scream and cry.” If he was invited to a party, his parents had to ask that all balloons be put away first.
Extreme behaviour like this can be baffling to a parent, who may wonder what on earth is going on. “We all have fears,” points out Doug Symons, a child clinical psychologist at Acadia University in Wolfville, NS. “When they’re excessive and begin to interfere with your life, we define them as phobias.” About one in 30 kids will develop a bona fide phobia that fits the official diagnostic criteria. Phobias are persistent—lasting several months, not just a day or two—and they can compromise some everyday activities such as playing, going to the park or shopping.
Phobias can develop at almost any age. And they can be long-lasting: Many children who are afraid of spiders continue to battle an arachnid aversion as adults 30 years later.
There’s an evolutionary explanation behind many types of strong fears. It stands to reason that prehistoric preschoolers who were terrified of big animals, deep water and snakes were more likely to survive than their less cautious cohorts. Other phobias seem to arise from first-hand experience. For instance, Dawson Penney lost a helium balloon to the wide blue sky shortly before he became afraid of balloons. And even just bearing witness to an experience can provoke a phobia. My seven-year-old daughter developed a fear of elevators when she saw a group of people trapped in an elevator at the mall.
Phobias also appear to have family roots. Children with phobias often have a parent, grandparent, aunt or uncle with an irrational fear or two, suggesting a genetic link. Or they can simply be copying a fear response they’ve seen modelled by worrywart parents, notes child psychiatrist Klaus Minde, head of an anxiety clinic at Montreal Children’s Hospital.
No matter what is sending your child into a panic, there are ways parents can help at every age.
Babies don’t exhibit phobias. But disruptive fears are possible in very young children, as Dawson Penney’s mother observed, and if persistent they can certainly develop into phobias by preschool age. At four or five, a phobic reaction is hard to miss: Crying, screaming and running away in terror are typical responses.
Safety needs to be a concern at this age, as Nadia Laurin of Toronto discovered first-hand. Her daughter, Grace, was bitten by a dog when she was three. Grace became so intensely afraid of dogs that on one occasion a year later, she ran down the street screaming rather than be near one. With two other young children to hold onto, Laurin couldn’t chase after Grace and had to call out to neighbours for help. “I just wanted to go for a walk around the block,” she laments.
What not to do: Symons says that parents can unwittingly reinforce the phobia by avoiding the scary situation or showering a child with attention when she cries. Neither of these will serve to ease a child’s fears. When she is panicking, “you need to comfort her, but you don’t want to be overly attentive.” And, of course, never push your child towards whatever’s scaring her.
How to help: Try introducing your child to the object of her fear without any pressure to get close to it. Laurin showed Grace pictures of dogs in books. “We also went to the pet store to look at dogs because they’re safe” behind glass barriers, she adds. These tactics did help. The process is called desensitization and is used in professional practice. “Children are taught to relax as they’re exposed, and to keep the panic under control,” says Symons.
School-aged children (6–10)
Children in this age range may still react to a phobia with crying, or instead might freeze or cling to dad’s arm. They’re usually forthcoming with their fears: “Normally when you’re a school-aged child, you still tell your mom and dad what goes on,” says Minde.
Keith Turton, a community educator with the Edmonton region of the Canadian Mental Health Association, points out that panic in school-aged kids may be judged harshly by their peers. “If a child has a fear that other children don’t understand (for example, a fear of balls), at recess that child’s going to be mocked and laughed at. That’s why I encourage addressing things early,” Turton says.
What not to do: Don’t explain to your child for the 20th time why nothing will hurt her. Minde says a few explanations are enough. “After three or four times, you just say, ‘You know the answer.’ Otherwise it validates [the fear]. It makes it more important than it really is.” I’ve told my daughter how rare it is to get trapped in an elevator and described to her all the safety mechanisms that are in place, and now just leave it at that. Minde says by refusing to fixate on the fear, you help your child put it in perspective and give more focus to important and pleasant aspects of life.
How to help: You can head off your children’s fears, says Minde, by talking about things like sharks and lions in ways that put their danger in context. A documentary or picture book on poisonous snakes can be fascinating instead of frightening if mom or dad explains that a snake needs to eat and that this is how it catches its prey.
In his practice, Minde tries to get kids onside and empower them by suggesting they find a way to kick intrusive thoughts “in the bum.” One of his young patients tells his fears, “wrong number.” Another boy lets only good thoughts enter his brain — the “bad thoughts” are sent out his left ear.
Be sure to reinforce the positives. Talk about what went right. Remind your child what a good time you had at the park today: “We saw two dogs, and we still had fun.”
As many adults know all too well, phobias aren’t necessarily something you grow out of. “Children have fewer fears as they get older,” says Symons, “but they can be more intense.”
Parents of adolescents and young teenagers often need to don their detective caps when it comes to discerning a phobia in their child. “A teenager may hide it,” says Minde. Red flags should be raised if you notice your child is avoiding a particular situation. For example, “he may pretend not to be interested in swimming. But underneath it is a fear that he might drown.” Simple phobias like fear of heights aren’t problematic at this age because it’s easy for a teenager to avoid them, but more complex fears like test anxiety or social phobia may interfere with her school and social life. No matter how great the angst, though, a child this age may be unlikely to bring it up with you. “They’re trying to become more independent, which is normal, but they’re also unfortunately less likely to communicate openly with their parents,” says Turton.
What not to do: Don’t assume that because your child is older, she can handle the phobia on her own. Turton says, sadly, it’s often only the families with young children who seek help for their kids. “We often assume [older children] are strong, they’re big, they’ll get over it. But even as a teen, kids may not know that what they’re experiencing is not normal. They may be suffering in silence.”
How to help: Sit down with your child and tell him what you’ve observed. Encourage him to discuss his fears with you, and keep the lines of communication as open as possible.
Be supportive and work with your child to find the help he needs. But at this age, your direct involvement in treatment may not be necessary. You can help best by driving your child to appointments and sitting in the waiting room.
When to call the experts
“Fear is a normal thing in children, so a lot of parents don’t seek help,” points out Keith Turton, a community educator with the Canadian Mental Health Association. “The difficulty is that then the child lives with this all the time.”
When is it time to talk to the doctor? “When families begin to feel that their lives are being interfered with,” advises Doug Symons, a child clinical psychologist at Acadia University in Wolfville, NS. A fear of tigers probably isn’t going to cramp your kid’s style. But a profound needle phobia can hamper even the most routine health checkups.
The best starting point for support is your child’s physician, who can refer you to specialized help if warranted. Parents can also call mental health agencies in their region. Typical treatment will encompass counselling and behaviour modification techniques. Medications are rarely necessary.
That’s not to say that home remedies won’t work. Susanne Penney dealt with her son Dawson’s fear of balloons with a solution she calls “balloon intervention.” Building on an idea she read in an article, she first gave her son an uninflated balloon to touch. “We promised not to blow it up, and he played with it for a while.” Over a period of weeks, she and her husband gradually added more air to the balloon and bounced it around with their son. She was surprised at how well the technique worked. “It took awhile, but after we finished, he was good.”
Turton says this conditioning process is one that mental health therapists use themselves. “If the parent is comfortable and confident doing that, slowly and without rushing the child, it can be quite successful.” But, he cautions, “if he becomes fearful, then back off. Forcing the issue could just make it worse.” And Symons adds that if you do ease up a bit, it’s important to praise the child for being brave enough to face the thing he fears, and not to treat the “backing off” as a reward.
Although phobias can be frustrating, remember that it’s probably more difficult for your child than it is for you. “I know I’ve gotten to the point where I feel angry with Grace,” Toronto mom Nadia Laurin says of her daughter, who is afraid of dogs. “But you have to make her feel like what she’s doing isn’t wrong. She doesn’t even know what’s happening. She’s just full of fear.”