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Genes Drive Kids' Changing Fears

Child Fears Change Over Years as Genes Shift Gears

Child's Development, Environment Affect Fear Genes continued...

"Phobias represent an extreme where the fear is high and then it begins to either incapacitate or substantially interfere with life," he says. "I cannot say for certain the patterns we saw in this study extrapolate to phobias, but from other data I can say that the same factors that govern normal fears seem related to predisposing a person to having more phobic disorders."

Joanna Ball, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at New York's Montefiore Medical Center, works with fearful children. Kendler's findings are in line with her clinical experience.

"As kids get older, their ability to make sense of things matures," Ball tells WebMD. "Maybe they are frightened of thunder at age 8, but as they get older, they see people don't typically die in thunderstorms. So they can call on their experience when faced with thunder. But as they get older, they understand other frightening things and may develop fear of illness, fear of death, or even fear of money issues."

Genetic influences, Ball says, are just one of many factors that contributes to a child's fearfulness.

"Everyone is predisposed to a lot of things, but how that manifests depends on what environmental experiences you have and what developmental stage you are in," she says. "If you are prone to something, whether it is anxiety or phobia, a lot has to do with where you are developmentally and in terms of your environment."

Helping Children Deal With Fear

When children are afraid, just telling them to get over it doesn't help. But it also doesn't help to give in to a child's fear.

"Listen to the kids, let them express themselves. If they feel heard, it makes a big difference," Ball says. "But the more parents give in to the fear and make accommodations, it gives the fear more credibility. Parents come to me, and the kids are sleeping in the parents' bed, the parents are sleeping in the kid's bed, and the parents have so accommodated the fear it seems valid. Instead, help the kids produce evidence: Look under the bed with them, for example."

Being fearful is a normal part of childhood. There really are a lot of things to be afraid of, and a lot of things kids need to be reassured about.

Professional help is needed if a child's fears impair his or her normal function.

"Warning signs are when a child starts to be fearful about leaving the house, is unable to go to school, gets very clingy, has sudden changes in mood, or is fearful of a lot of different things," Ball says. "When fears get in the way of them being a kid is when you want to seek help."

The Kendler study appears in the April issue of Archives of General Psychiatry.

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