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Is it a Fear or Phobia? Learn How to Tell the Difference

Fear or Phobia? Top Tips for Telling the Difference

Childhood is a time of big change and exploration. Our children are learning what they like, and don’t like, and where their boundaries are in life. It’s common for kids to feel scared of certain things at certain ages. I mean, we can all recall something we were scared of as a child, right? The dark, thunder storms, clowns, spiders (let’s not go there, shall we?), chins…..what? Never had a fear of chins? Clearly you’re not a geniophobic then.

What happens though when a fear becomes all-consuming? It becomes a phobia, and can stick with us for a very long time, through many situations and settings. Basically, it sucks.

A fear is an emotional reaction to something that we find worrying, or scary. Fear itself isn’t a bad thing; it’s there to protect us and keep us alert for threats in the environment. But sometimes we can get tricked by our clever brains, and think something is a threat that might not actually be. Or we have a not-so-nice experience and then associate that event with threat and it becomes tough to untangle the two, and then when it gets extreme, it can verge into phobia territory.

So they’re kind of same same, but different. Just how can we tell if it is a fear or phobia? And what can we do to help our kids move back from the phobia edge?

Fears are transient and functional

Garden-variety fears can usually come and go. For example, you might be watching A Nightmare on Elm Street, and feel complete and utter fear for Freddy Kruger, but once the movie is over, your fears are manageable. Well, maybe after a couple of sleepless nights that is. Fear is something that might not feel great, but for the most part we can continue to function as we normally would. We can leave the house, socialise, go to work, or school, and do the things we need to. In fact, sometimes fear can be pretty useful, stopping us from doing things that might put us at risk.

Phobias are excessive and persistent

Phobias just will.not.quit. They can be full on, consuming and they don’t go away. Often they are present for at least 6 months before a diagnosis can be considered, but many people suffer for years. So with a thunderstorm, for example, a child who had a specific phobia of thunderstorms would continue to be scared, even when it’s a bright, sunny day, because a thunderstorm might come along at some point. They would be preoccupied with thunderstorms, and maybe even go into a panic at the mere mention of the word thunderstorms. Or thunder, storms, clouds.

Fears are specific and contained

Zumba Kids

Most of the time our fears are fairly specific. So going back to our thunderstorms example. Often, kids can be scared of thunderstorms, and freak out when they hear the rumble of thunder in the air. But once the storm has passed, they aren’t then scared of the clouds, or the sky, or leaving the house. It is specific to the thunderstorm and contained to that situation.

Phobias are over and above

In children, fears are pretty common. It’s a big world out there, and there’s lots of creepy, crazy, and concerning things. Being in the early stages of development their brains are processing at big rates, but they’re also processing at concrete levels. So something that makes a loud noise, like a dog, or thunderstorms, might be jarring for them. But when a phobia is at play, it is beyond what you would consider ‘normal’ for a person of that age. So the thunderstorm fear you thought they would ‘grow out of’ doesn’t actually budge. And they’re 15 and refusing to go outside as a result.

We all have fears, and that’s OK!

They key thing with fears is working with your child to understand them, normalise them and work through them before they become more entrenched. Fear is a bit like an upside-down U, we actually need a bit to function. If we had no fear we’d flatline – we wouldn’t be alert to anything. On the flipside, if we have too much fear we still don’t function – because we’re way too alert to anything and everything and that’s incapacitating. So if we can turn the volume down just a little, we have enough fear so that we can keep safe, keep on our toes, and keep motivated for things, but not enough that it takes over our lives.

If you feel that your child’s fears are becoming more persistent, a good first step is to chat with your GP, and then you can get a referral to a psychologist who can then work with the family to turn the volume down a little. Phobias often have a heritable component, so it’s important to understand any vulnerabilities your child may have, and work with them on building resilience, emotion regulation and calm. Empathise with them about their fears, and regularly talk about ‘brave self talk’ and how to turn things around.

Dr Sasha LynnDr. Sasha Lynn BPsych(Hons), DClinPsych, MAPS, MCCP is a Writer, Clinical Psychologist, Academic and Mum. Want to read more? You can find her over at her blog ‘From The Left Field’ where she describes herself as “Dr. Phil’s alter-ego. With hair.”

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Janine Mergler

Janine Mergler is a veteran Queensland teacher, graduating from QUT with a BEd majoring in Social Sciences. After many years in the classroom, Janine moved on to academia. She has proudly trained new generations of teachers in her role as a lecturer at Queensland University of Technology Faculty of Education. She has also worked in the Queensland Government as an education specialist, developing education resources and delivering community awareness programs to help families conserve water. Currently she is the owner and editor of Families Magazine, a publication specifically targeted at parents who value a quality education for children.  Janine leads a team of professionals who write about family lifestyle, early childhood, schools and education information and family-friendly events.

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