Fear and Phobia in Children
It’s Halloween, so what better time to think about children’s fears? Clearly, for most kids, the idea of dressing up as a zombie, blood sucking vampire or evil witch is fun and funny, so what do children find frightening and why?
There is no easy answer to this, as you get some children with very strange fears (for instance I have met children who completely freak out at hairs in the bath or the texture of flour), but I will try and describe in general the progression of fears common to most children. Fears typically vary depending on age and intellectual capacity, moving from almost “instinctive fear” in babies to sophisticated fears of abstract concepts in adulthood, that require more elaborate thought processes.
For babies and toddlers, whose cognitive capacity is still basic, fear is more of an “instinct” than involving much active thought and cognition. Evolution has honed humans to have brains that are hardwired to fear certain things that have served our ancestors well in the past: for instance loud noises (which could have denoted a falling tree, an earthquake, a sabre toothed tiger or any manner of danger) and heights, which if not avoided could lead to untimely death. If you make a loud unexpected noise next to a baby, they will most certainly startle and most will start crying. So aversive are loud noises to babies that it is possible to induce a phobia in babies by using a loud noise.
A phobia is an extreme fear associated with an object or situation. Clinically speaking, it requires that the fear leads to avoidance of the object or situation causing disruption to a person’s day-to-day function. “Little Albert” is a classic case in the psychology literature of a phobia being induced in a baby using loud noise. Little Albert was a 9 month old boy who was not afraid of rats and was given a rat to play with. A dastardly psychologist John B. Watson wanted to see if it was possible to cause a phobia of rats. Every time little Albert touched the rat, a man stood behind him and banged a piece of metal with a hammer making a loud noise scaring little Albert. Needless to say, after a while of this, Albert became afraid of rats and stopped going near them, proving it is possible to induce a phobia. Thankfully ethics boards no longer allow this type of research.
Interestingly, there appears to be an evolutionarily hard-wired biological predisposition to phobia development to things which are traditionally harmful. Thus even in adults, it is easy to induce a phobia for things like rodents, snakes and spiders but very difficult to induce a phobia to cars, guns and knives which are more likely to be a real threat in the modern age.
Although it is hard to prove whether a fear of heights is innate in babies, supporting evidence comes from Eleanor Gibson’s visual cliff experiments of the 60s which tested 6-14 month old babies. Here babies were encouraged by their mothers to cross a floor that had a section partway made of transparent Perspex over a ditch. Most babies would not crawl over the Perspex even though they could feel the floor was solid with their hands. Some babies cried as they “could not” get to their mothers for fear of falling into a ditch. Some fearful babies that did not dare cross rolled onto the Perspex part by accident, good evidence that fear, does not necessarily prevent accidents and proving that babies should not be left near real cliff edges! A few other babies, whether due to fearlessness or ignorance crawled over the Perspex. The dumb and fearless – either bound for greatness or an early exit.
At this young age, babies (at least baby monkeys) are also primed to fear what others fear. This evolutionary trick allows babies to quickly pick up the dominant threats in its environment, as if others feared something; it would probably do them good to quickly learn to fear it too. Mineka showed this clearly in Rhesus monkeys who were laboratory raised and did not fear snakes. After showing the monkeys videos of wild monkeys showing extreme fear to snakes, the baby monkeys became afraid of toy snakes in the laboratory, despite never personally having had an unfortunate encounter with a snake. Babies and young children are also primed to attend to their parents’ fear. I acutely remember breast feeding Big Sis while watching a horror movie late one night. At one point, I held my breath in anticipation of something horrible happening on screen. It would have been imperceptible to most people as I did not move or make a sound, and yet, Big Sis stopped suckling, tensed and looked at me. She could not yet sit up, walk or speak, and yet, she could sense my “fear”.
As toddlers grow into infants, they begin to develop cognitively. With this comes the beginning of understanding about the world and of imagination. They can start thinking about things that could happen beyond their own direct experience. At this age “The dark” and “monsters” are quite common fears. Often the children’s fears are completely unrealistic and may come from the strangest of places. When I was a young child, I couldn’t sleep one night and walked downstairs to find my parents. They were watching “Jaws” and I walked in at the inopportune moment when someone got munched. For several nights after this, I had nightmares that “Jaws” would come through my bedroom window and munch me. My parents found this hilarious and at the time, I didn’t quite understand why. Recently, my own children’s fears have been a source of interest and amusement to me, although I try to take it seriously and not be amused in their presence. Big Sis, while having no problems with the Maidmashing and Bonecrunching giants when we read Roald Dahl’s “The BFG”, refused to continue with “Maltida”, for fear of Mrs Trunchbull. Several nights of sleep for Big Sis and disturbed evenings for us lay at the hand of Mrs Trunchbull. Lil Bro on the other hand, took grievance with Violet Beuregarde. For some reason, being turned into a blueberry was the stuff of nightmares. Her return to normality by means of juicing fuelled rather than quelled the fear.
At this age, what parents fear are real fears are often not well understood. The ever-present fear of parents: “How will my children cope if I die?” is not at all a concern for children at this young age. They neither comprehend death nor a realistic meaning of time. Once when I uttered out loud my fear of “What will happen to you children if I die?” to my chagrin, Big Sis with typical “matter-of-fact” style replied “Oh, it will be fine, we will still have Dad”. By the age of 5-8, however, children come to understand the meaning of death and fear of death becomes a common fear in this age group.
The middle childhood years (6-12 years), are also the peak age for acquiring fear of animals. Dogs and spiders are pretty common fears for children. Sometimes, a child will develop a fear because of a specific experience with an animal, but other times, they may have a fear even without a direct upsetting experience as evolution has predisposed our brains to accepting that animals are potentially dangerous. In reality, cars kill more people than animals, and yet, practically no one develops a phobia of getting into a car without a direct traumatic experience. As children reach adolescence, fears become more similar to the fears of adults: fear of failure, fear of humiliation, fear of rejection, fear of war, illness and crime come to the fore. Whilst on the one hand, these fears are more “realistic” than the “boogie man” fears of infancy, one can also make the argument that many adult fears are also unrealistic. Fears about an ebola outbreak in the UK are probably over and above the realistic risk.
It should be remembered that fear is a natural response and it helps to serve a vital function. Without fear, our species would likely not have survived, by putting ourselves in the direct line of danger without regard. The fear response allows not only the bodily preparedness to fight or flight, but also the brain response to pre-empt adversity, plan and avoid. People who show low levels of fear often show high levels of “risk-taking behaviour”, and often end up in trouble one way or another whether it is in a high-speed car accident, audacious robbery or in bringing down the banking sector. However, fears should be based in reality and the work of psychological treatment for anxieties and phobias includes anchoring fears in reality.
As a parent we cannot shield our children from all adversity and helping children to understand and deal with anxiety and fear is part of our role as parents. Teaching children to accept and have the confidence to know that they can handle fearful situations when they arise is more important than preventing fearful situations arising or promoting gung ho “bravery”. Security and reassurance is the key; but sometimes it is easier said than done.
When Big Sis was in Year 1, she studied Edward Jenner and small pox at school. The idea of small pox put the fright into Big Sis like nothing before. Not only was her sleep disturbed, but even in the day she would get tearful thinking about the family being killed by small pox. This went on for a week, and despite my reassurance that small pox no longer existed in England anymore, she was still tearful and upset. I eventually went to school to see her teacher to tell her of the situation. When I picked up Big Sis from school that day, she declared to me that she was no longer afraid of small pox.
“How come?” I asked having given reassurance all week to no avail
“Because the teacher told me about the small pox vaccine.”
“Er –haven’t I been telling you about that for the past week?”
“Yes, but you’re just mum, she is a TEACHER.”
Guess that medical degree doesn’t count when you are just a mother…
Gibson, E. J., & Walk, R. D. (1960). The visual cliff. Scientific American, 202(4), 64−71.
Mineka, S., Davidson, M., Cook, M., & Keir, R. (1984). Observational conditioning of snake fear in rhesus monkeys. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 93, 355−372.
It’s hard not to laugh at some of these fears, although of course I presume that’s the worst possible thing an adult can do (belittle the fear, rather than just provide reassurance that it is not quite justified). I somehow watched the Boris Karloff version of The Mummy when I was a child and was so terrified that I threw a doll dressed as a belly-dancer out of the window into the snow outside at night. I thought she looked Egyptian and that her pailettes gleamed sinister in the dark…
Thanks Marina! I know, I do have a chuckle at their fears, but yes, always best left till after they’ve gone to bed!