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Fears and phobias - older children and teenagers

teenager; adolescent; fear; phobia; anxiety; worry; anxieties; children; feelings;

All children will be worried or frightened from time to time. Sometimes these fears will get in the way of doing things that they would like to try.

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Parents often worry about their children's fears and anxieties. Children vary very widely in their reactions to things that happen to them or that they need to deal with. You can help your children to overcome these fears and have the confidence needed to face up to hard things that will happen in their lives.

There is a topic 'Fears - young children' about babies, preschoolers and children just starting school. There are also topics about Anxiety on the Kids Health, Young Adults Health and Teens Health sections of this site.

What are anxieties, fears and phobias?

  • Fear is an emotional feeling – being afraid of something – that triggers a number of changes in the body.
    • When a person is afraid of something, the body prepares to either tackle the situation or to run away.
    • To do this, the heart rate and breathing rate get faster, and the person may turn pale, perspire, have an unpleasant feeling in his stomach ('butterflies') or feel shaky.
  • While fear has a particular cause (eg. a person, animal, or situation that someone is afraid of), anxiety is a more general unpleasant feeling, where it may not be clear what the person is worried about.
  • A phobia is a really strong fear of something specific. The fear is much stronger than the risk of harm, and it interferes with things the person wants to do.

It is normal to feel worried about some situations, and being afraid is the way we can be prepared to meet and deal with danger - it makes us alert and ready to take action.

When deciding whether your child's fear is a problem, you need to consider:

  • Is it reasonable for a child to feel this way?
  • Is the fear interfering with the everyday life of the child or family?

Also, it may be useful to look at the topic'Anxiety' on the Teen Health section of this site.

Note: If a child has a lot of fears and worries, it is important to think about what is happening in her life. For example, is there illness in the family, are her parents having lots of arguments, etc? Sometimes phobias begin at a time of trauma or difficulty.

School age children

  • Children (and most people) are afraid of things that they cannot understand or control, and strange or new situations or objects.
  • Fears may be learned.
    • Sometimes they come from a direct experience with something that hurt, eg. being bitten by a dog.
    • A fear can also be taught by parents, brothers and sisters, friends, teachers, etc. For example, if the parent always gets afraid when she sees a spider or goes in a lift, the child is likely to be afraid of these things.
  • Fears can also be caused by seeing or hearing about a danger or a tragedy, eg. on TV. Children can become very frightened, fearing that the same harm could happen to themselves, their family or friends.
  • Fear of being left alone at night or of the dark is still common in younger school age children.
  • Children may be worried about burglars, afraid of having no friends, afraid of bullies, anxious about school work, or starting a new primary school or high school.
  • They often worry that their parents may separate, especially if they see this happening to friends' families, or if there are a lot of family arguments.
  • Many children worry that a parent may die.

Anxiety is infectious, and can pass easily from one person to another. Worries and fears can pass easily from parent to child, and from child to parent.

  • In some ways, this passing of anxieties from parent to child can be helpful to keep the child safe, eg. the child learns from your reactions that it is not safe to go on the road.
  • However, if you are too worried about many things, the children are likely to be more anxious.

Young people

  • Every young person will face some fears and worries in the course of growing up.
    • While many young people would list among their fears things such as wars, unemployment, death, aircraft, pollution, heights, etc., the most common fears are about family issues, such as fear of parents divorcing or fear of losing a parent.
    • Young people also worry about their own lives and the changes that are happening to them, eg. starting high school, leaving school, starting a job.
  • The two important tasks of adolescence are:
    • to become independent and more responsible for their own decision-making and actions.
    • to establish a sense of who they are, and what sort of person they are becoming - "Who am I?" and "What am I like?

Who am I?

  • One of a teenager's greatest fears is being different in some way from his friends. Young people want to dress, look and talk like their friends, so that they can feel part of the group. This is normal.
  • They worry a lot about what other people think of them and tend to think that people are more critical of them than they really are.
  • Young people also worry a lot about their physical appearance. They can be extremely self-conscious and feel that everyone is looking at them. They worry about their shape, acne, hair, clothes, etc.
  • Another worry is what their peer group thinks of them. Being accepted by their friends is vitally important.
  • Anxiety can also be a result of differences in sexual development. Some may worry if they mature early or if they are late developers. They may also have worries about new sexual feelings and impulses.
  • The changes and extremes of feelings and moods in some young people can lead to a fear of 'going crazy'.
  • As feelings often get stirred up with adolescence, some fear a loss of control in coping with their angry feelings.

Independence

  • While young people may want to be independent, "stand on their own feet" and take responsibility for their decisions and actions, they may also worry about whether they will be able to manage this.
  • Pressures of getting good marks at school, particularly in years 11 and 12, and the importance of this for future career choices very often cause high levels of anxiety.
  • Adolescents may worry about whether they will be able to provide for themselves in the future.

Helping young people with fears

  • Listen to their worries, and treat their fears seriously. Don't make fun of them or treat them as unimportant, as this will stop them from telling you about them.
  • Young people may be embarrassed about talking about some things with parents. Instead, they may spend hours on the phone talking to friends about their clothes, social situations and the opposite sex. These discussions may seem like a waste of time to parents, but the support that they give can be of major importance to the young people.
  • Be available to give them information if they ask for it.
  • Help them look at situations and choices in a calm, thoughtful way so that they can make wise decisions.
  • Help them gain confidence in their ability to make decisions and of finding useful ways of coping.
  • Give encouragement for thinking for themselves – don't always provide the answers or "know better".
  • It is best to not try and fix things for them or tell them how to do it, but rather to listen and help them learn to solve problems for themselves.
  • If you think that your young person's anxieties are becoming so unreal or so strong that they are interfering with her daily life, then it could be useful to suggest that she talks with a counsellor, such as a school counsellor, or for you to discuss the situation with a professional.

Resources

There are several topics on the Kid's Health and Teen Health sections of this site that provide information for children and adolescents about anxiety, stress, stress management, and anxiety disorders. See Related Topics above.

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The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Parent Helpline on 1300 364 100 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).

This topic may use 'he' and 'she' in turn - please change to suit your child's sex.

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