The phobic child

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By Phoebe Doylewriter, mother and Early Years teacher

Advice for supporting young children with anxiety disorders

Little girl with mother

Phobias can be an enormous encumbrance for young children while causing great distress to parents and offering huge challenges for practitioners.

Defining phobias

With an estimated one in 30 children suffering from phobias to some degree, they are one of the most common anxiety disorders. Defined as an extreme and intense fear of a particular animal, object or situation, a phobia is usually a fear of something which holds little or no fear to others and may be hard for others to understand.

As adults we are all familiar with irrational fears. Most of us could write a short list of objects or situations we are afraid of that may seem illogical to others; ghosts or spiders, perhaps.

The key difference with a phobia is that it makes the sufferer feel extreme anxiety, even terror, at the thought of coming in contact with their feared object or situation. When phobic, the body enters the ‘fight or flight’ state, caused by adrenalin and other chemicals being released into the body. This evolved anxiety defence mechanism is designed to protect in times of danger and is a vital part of psychological growth. However phobia sufferers enter this ‘fight or flight’ state without any real need. It’s as if the brain is playing a trick, which has a huge physical impact and can result in severe anxiety.

Common phobias in children under the age of five include; the dark, animals, heights, blood, injections, fictional characters and the toilet. When presented with the phobic situation or object the child experiences hugely unpleasant anxiety symptoms and will go to all lengths to avoid the trigger. It is this avoidance that is the real problem because it can interrupt their day-to-day activities.

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