What is Phobia? A Psychological Definition and Applications to the Real World
Kids are afraid of a lot of things…school, failure, bullying, family stresses, loss of status, and more. But what is a phobia and how do you know that your child may suffer from a phobia?
The clinical definition of a “phobia,” is an irrational fear. This means that the fear is not due to any real logical cause, such as the fear of falling when sitting on a high ledge, which would be a “logical” fear. So remember first that a phobia is an illogical or unfounded fear.
There are literally hundreds of phobias, as defined by the DSM-VI (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) and there have been numerous versions of the manual revised to update all of the new phobias, as well as other new mental illnesses which have been discovered since the previous edition was put out.
That being said, what we focus on at Nobullying.com is bullying as well as other issues that young people deal with in the school and home environment and our purpose is to try to raise awareness of bullying and its harmful effects. Therefore, for purposes of this article, we will stick to the phobias which most relate to this issue regarding phobias. In addition, we will discuss some of the other phobias which kids may be predisposed to, due to their age or status in life, or particular circumstances.
PHOBIAS MOST COMMON AMONG KIDS
The types of phobias of young children which we see as more prevalent in the younger age groups tend to differ from those in older children. Young kids tend to have phobias regarding:
- Fear of the dark
- High places (a common phobia with the general population also)
- Fear of strangers
- Fear of failure
- Fear of being alone
- Fear to try something new
- Certain foods
- Medicines and doctors
- Unfamiliar places
- Kids who are bigger than them
- Teachers or those in power at school
- Shots or doctor procedures
There are many other phobias which young children have to deal with, but these seem to be the most common among younger children. Some of these phobias are extreme, while others are only mildly disabling. But it should be pointed out that not all phobias are a bad thing. While some mental health practitioners might disagree, a healthy fear of strangers or unfamiliar surroundings, for example, are good things as it protects kids from following people they do not know or getting into dangerous situations when away from caregivers.
However, phobias can be debilitating and traumatic for younger children who experience fears of the dark or other kids, doctor procedures, or water, because these are situations which are often necessary to survival or everyday life. Phobias can also detract from the capabilities of social interaction, such as the child who is afraid of water in a pool but wants to swim with his friends, etc.
PHOBIAS COMMON AMONG OLDER CHILDREN AND TEENS
- Fear of being bullied or left alone
- Fear of not having friends
- Fear of failure in school or life
- Fear of loss of income in family or divorce issues
- Fear of disease or world events, like war, terrorism, etc.
- Fear of natural disasters such as earthquakes and tornadoes
There is some cross-over between the things which are most likely to produce fear in older kids as opposed to younger kids’ phobias, but in general, older children are more afraid of a lack of social order or acknowledgement from other children than their younger peers, and they are afraid of being picked on or bullied by more dominant peers or isolated from their peer group. Teens have an overt sense of the importance of fitting in to some group or having an affiliation with peers, so when this is threatened, they develop a high degree of apprehension and phobia toward certain situations.
Also we see a lot more direct fear of world events and an awareness of factors such as the economic crisis or terrorism and disease which younger kids are not as aware of. In addition, kids of divorced parents may fear losing the love of the estranged parent or the family status. They may also blame themselves for one parent leaving the home or fear abandonment.
COMMUNICATION IS THE KEY
When it comes to phobias, just like any other factors which affects kids today, communication is important from parents, as well as educators and counselors, as well as others, to keep the lines open for young people so that they feel they are not alone.
Open communication about the difference between healthy fears and the topic of ‘what is phobia’ are also important to clarify when the fear has become a problem that the child needs help with. By definition, a phobia, or any other mental issue is only a problem when it gets in the way of a child’s every day life or prohibits them from living life to the fullest. It is also important to realize and teach kids that a fear is different than a phobia and that fears are often there to protect us from potential dangers and that is is natural to have a ‘healthy fear’ of some things.
THE DISTINCTION BETWEEN A FEAR AND A PHOBIA
So in the discussion of ‘what is phobia?’ we need to distinguish between the two so that we can know how to draw the line between a natural, healthy fear and an unrealistic phobia.
What is fear? Fear is a natural biological reaction to danger. The ‘fight or flight’ feeling which people get when they encounter a dangerous dog, see the blue lights of a police car in their rearview mirror, or realize that they forgot to pay their light bill are all prewired to protect us and to ensure our survival. Many fears are therefore, innate or inborn into our psyche and are a natural response to impending danger.
A phobia is a clinical term meaning an irrational fear, as discussed before and creates the same ‘fight or flight’ symptoms, such as racing heart, breathlessness, and panic as fear, but without cause. For example, a child may have a phobia for the dark and cannot stand to be left alone in the dark, even in their own bed. Additionally, they may think they see shadows or monsters in their closet, have nightmares, or experience trauma over the fact that they are left in the dark. This kind of phobia can disrupt family life because the child must have continual reassurance that there is nothing to be afraid of, etc. and may need a nightlight or other aids to help them cope.
Likewise other phobias can disrupt family or school routines when they become out of control or create a high degree of panic among the child. Phobias of bullying are coming among all age groups of kids and this must be dealt with too.
SOME SUGGESTIONS FOR DEALING WITH PHOBIAS
So what can be done to help kids deal with phobias without losing the natural fear that protects them? Here are a few tips for both younger and older children which often prove effective in helping them deal with such issues both inside and outside of school.
FOR YOUNGER KIDS
- Leave lights on in hallways or beside bed if children have a fear of the dark.
- Reassure young children that you are near if you are needed and that nothing will harm them.
- Teach kids to have a healthy fear of strangers or unfamiliar places but to discuss how to be safe in these situations so kids will feel empowered to handle these circumstances and know what to do to stay safe.
- Remember that many fears stem from an overgeneralization or view of something. If children have an unrealistic fear of all dogs, for example, consider getting them a dog for a pet or have them play with a neighbor’s dog so that they will realize that not all dogs are to be feared.
- Teach kids that they should try new things even if they are afraid sometimes. They should not take unneeded risks, but teach them that life requires some risk in order to pay off and that some risks are okay.
- Expose kids to doctors, medicines when needed, and other feared situations early in life, so that they become more accustomed to them.
FOR OLDER KIDS
- Communicate with children in a divorce with both parents and explain that they both still love them and will always be there for them.
- Discuss world events like terrorism and economics with kids while watching the news or tie it in to homework assignments at school when appropriate.
- Tell kids to do their best in school but not to worry when they do not quite meet up to their self-expectations. Communicate that, as long as they are doing their best, that is all that you expect.
- Discuss strategies in what to do if they are bullied at school and who they can turn to for help.
- Discuss other fears with kids and offer strategies in coping.
The key is to communicate with kids of all ages regarding their fears and phobias, so that they will not feel alone or overly anxious about them. Teach them that healthy fears are ok and are needed, but phobias create unnecessary anxiety which can hamper one’s enjoyment of life.
One of the greatest fears prevalent in both age groups has to do with bullying. And no wonder that it is a phobia among kids of all ages-there is so much of is going on these days. Cyberbullying, as well as real world bullying at school and other places creates an overwhelming sense of fear in kids. But if they know who their resources are, it is not so scary. Bullying.com is here to help parents and others help kids deal with bullying. get involved and communicate with your schools and mental health agencies to help stamp out bullying. In this age of “tolerance,” the last thing we can afford to tolerate are bullies, who are not tolerant of anything.