Beyond Childhood Fears

From the WebMD Archives

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 bombing attack.

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 break-ins.

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 imagined."

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.