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Common Childhood Fears

by Lesley Jamison, Ph.D.

As adults, we can all remember at some point in our lives experiencing fear. That fear struck at some point, whether it was during a flight in an airplane bouncing around a thunderstorm or walking through a dark parking lot. Fear is an unpleasant emotion that occurs in response to a perceived or real threat. The physiological response to fear disappears when that threat disappears or is withdrawn. Not surprisingly, fears are very common in “normal” children. Researchers have found that more than 90 percent of children experience fear at some point in their development. Fear is a normal emotion that helps to warn us of possible danger and to learn adaptive coping skills.

Fear in children tends to be age-specific and transient, with predominant fears at different ages. The object of fear may change from year to year, month to month, or even week to week. Many of these fears disappear as the child becomes older. The intensity of the fear to ends to be related to the learning and experiential history of the child. With increased maturity and experience a child is able to figure out that previously feared stimuli are not threatening and the ability to cope with fear increases. As a result, something fearful for a newborn would not provoke the same response in a school-aged child.

Parents’ understanding of typical childhood fears not only allows them to empathize with their child’s fear, no matter how unreasonable it may seem, but allows them to recognize the fear as age-appropriate, and enables them to respond appropriately.

Fear in newborns tends to be primarily reflexive. Instinctively they become fearful if they experience sudden loss of support, excessive or unexpected sensory stimuli particularly with loud noises. By about six to nine months of age infants become fearful of masks, heights, jacks-in-the-box, and strangers.

With parent-infant attachment and the infants’ ability to remember their parents’ faces, separation anxiety occurs. Separation anxiety typically occurs at about six to ten months of age and peaks between 18 and 24 months. Distress from being separated from the primary caretaker is a universal reaction. The younger infant does not have the ability to understand constancy and may believe that if his or her mother is not there she is gone forever. The reported peak at 18 to 24 months is probably due to the fact that this is when many children enter day care or preschool. Of course, the peak may be earlier in a child who started day care earlier.

Usually when toilet training begins, fear of the toilet becomes a common fear. An older child may become fearful of accidents due to parental reaction.

At age two, when children to begin to understand cause and effect relationships and sense their lack of control in the world, they may become fearful of going down the bathroom drain and/or toilet. Other common fears for the 2-year-old are auditory stimuli (thunder, trains), doctors, large approaching objects, and imaginary creatures.

Between the ages of two and three, children start engaging in imaginative play. They may become fearful even of the imaginary situations or creatures they construct. As a result, these young children may have a heightened fear response, in which they show fear in even familiar situations or situations that were never a problem.

Children’s imagination becomes extremely active at ages three and four. Three and four year olds tend to be a very fearful group. Typical fears involve the dark, scary, noises, masks, TV monsters, animals, being alone, and burglars. They worry about being harmed by superhuman creatures.

Young children are egocentric and have difficulty discriminating between fantasy and reality. They may truly believe that monsters on TV are real and want to hurt them. These children are the most at risk to be frightened by the various “scary” or “morbid” costumes that are often associated with Halloween. Young children tend to be very fearful of the dark, and may become easily disoriented if they wake up in darkness. Any little sound or shadow may become easily exaggerated and/or misinterpreted.

An additional fear at age four is the concern about losing the primary care giver. This fear, as well as fear of the darkness, is also common among five-year-olds. The fears of most five-year-olds tend to be very concrete. Typical fears at this age are fear of injury, fear of getting lost, fear of dogs, thunder, and losing parents.

Common fears of the six and seven year olds are ghost, witches, natural disasters, wild animal, “an uglay tone of voice,” parental loss, and injury. Children’s sense of reality is clearer, at this developmental level, but they still have a vivid imagination. Monsters are no longer perceived as free-floating at this age, but rather more localized like in the attic or basement.

Many children are able to resolve fears by age seven due their increasing cognitive and adaptive skills. Fears tend to be predominant between the ages of about four to six, and lessen by age seven. Most fears after age seven are related to school, bodily injury, natural events, social anxiety, and performance anxiety.  Children entering school may develop school avoidance.

Around Halloween time, it is important to remember that infants are fearful of novel stimuli (e.g., masks) and many children between the ages of two and four are fearful of mask, ghost, imaginary creatures, etc. Their fear tends to be heightened because of their egocentricity and difficulty discriminating between reality and fantasy. Also, there are many five to seven year olds who report fears of witches and ghosts-so be careful with the costumes/decorations you choose for your little ones, their siblings, or your house!

Not all children will experience all the fears within their age level. The guidelines discussed provide information on age-appropriate fears for the average child. Not every two-year-old will be afraid of the dreaded vacuum cleaner. However, parents should be concerned if the fear is not age-appropriate (e.g., ten year-old running from a vacuum clean) or if an expected fear severely interferes with the child’s functioning or development.

When fears become maladaptive and create problems in daily functioning or substantial distress, they can interfere with self-esteem and may require assessment by a child psychotherapist.  Common treatment involves a brief course of cognitive-behavioral therapy.  Fears do not always develop into anxiety disorders but late adolescents and young adults may begin to develop social anxiety disorder.

This article was written Lesley Foulkes-Jamison, Ph.D., a pediatric psychologist trained at the University of Florida and who is now in Private Practice in the Columbia, South Carolina area.  It was written while she was an Associate with Clinical Psychology Associates of North Central Florida in Gainesville and Ocala Florida.   The article appeared locally in Gainesville Family Magazine.  Edits by Dr. Bordini 10/7/13. 

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