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Beyond Childhood Fears

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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."

No matter what's causing a childhood fear, experts agree it should never be ignored -- or childhood fears could turn into adult ones. But Garber says it's not always easy to find out what's bothering our children. "They don't often just tell us. They speak more through their behaviors."

Garber says those behavioral signs might include a change in sleeping pattern or an otherwise unexplainable need to be close to a parent. "What you need to do is first help them identify what they're afraid of and then teach them ways of coping with that fear," he says. "It will make them less likely to have anxiety disorders as an adult."

Cantor says that when a disturbing news story is at the root of a fear, it might help with older children to stress "reassuring information," such as telling a child that the presence of smoke alarms makes a fatal fire unlikely. But she adds there is one thing you should never say as a fear alleviator: "Don't say, it's very rare. It's not going to happen. Because for catastrophic things, one in a billion is too much."

Vital Information:

  • Childhood fears are a common experience, but a new study of children shows that nearly 50% exhibit symptoms of anxiety and 23% meet the full diagnostic criteria for anxiety disorder.
  • Some experts say that images of violence in the mass media, especially the news, contribute to fears among children.
  • Parents should try to find out whether their children have any fears and teach them to cope with them so that they don't develop anxiety disorder as adults.
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