Beyond Childhood Fears
Feb. 16, 2000 (Atlanta) -- Fire, thunder, snakes, and spiders. These are
just a few of the things children develop fears about -- fears that in many
cases are a normal part of growing up, and lead to no major psychological
problems. But not always. A new study finds that a significant number of
children develop full-blown anxiety disorders over some common fears.
Researchers at Maastricht University in the Netherlands came to that
conclusion after studying 290 children, ages 8 to 13. They assessed the
children's fears in two ways. First, they asked them the question, "What do
you fear most?" They then had the children complete a standardized
psychological questionnaire that listed some timeless childhood fears, such as
getting lost or kidnapped, as well as a modern-day one -- being the victim of a
Left to their own devices, the children ranked "spiders" as the
thing they feared most. On the psychological screening, though, spiders ranked
10th -- well behind "not being able to breathe" and burglar
Of more concern to the researchers was the percentage of children who showed
symptoms of preoccupation and anxiety over their fears. On further examination,
they found nearly 50% showed some sign of an anxiety disorder, while about 23%
met the full diagnostic criteria for one.
Experts in the field of child psychology say these are important but
unsurprising findings. Stephen Garber, PhD, co-author of Monsters Under the
Bed and Other Childhood Fears, says it's no wonder more kids are seriously
scared these days, given what they're exposed to through the media. "Some
kids are just immune to fear. They never met a stranger. But a percentage of
kids are just more prone to fear. So when you combine a natural personality
trait of being more threat-sensitive [with] an increased level of information
about scary things, you see an increase."
He'll get no argument from Joanne Cantor, PhD, professor of communication at
the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and author of Mommy, I'm Scared: How
TV and Movies Frighten Children and What We Can Do to Protect Them.
"Certainly kids have the ability to imagine monsters on their own. But the
mass media provides an intense dose of things children would not have
Cantor says parents should be especially wary about letting children watch
the news: "There's hardly anything educational left in the news. It's not
Walter Cronkite anymore. It's disasters and crime; the more vividly shown, the
better. And with young children, it's the visual that counts."
"I've seen in my own practice a marked increase in anxiety, panic
attacks, and fears in kids," says Hyman C. Tolmas, MD, a pediatrician for
the last 50 years in the New Orleans area. He says there are likely many
reasons for this, including the fact that some children live in violent
neighborhoods and homes as well as the influence of mass media, including
television. "The average kid, from kindergarten through 12th grade, will
have seen 200,000 acts of violence on the tube. That's got to impact somewhere
down the line."