Phobias: Irrational fears explained

Phobia disorders

A phobia disorder is characterised by irrational and excessive fear of an object or situation not normally considered dangerous. It is a type of anxiety disorder. The fear of an object or situation can be triggered directly, by encountering the thing itself or indirectly e.g., seeing a photo.

The fear lasts for at least 6 months and the triggering object is avoided which can greatly interfere with the daily routine of the child. Adults and adolescents with specific phobia realise that their fear is unwarranted however children do not. 

What types of phobias do children experience?

Children may experience specific phobia, panic disorder, agoraphobia or social phobia.

  1. Specific phobia is characterised by intense fear of a person, object, activity, situation or a place.

  2. Panic disorder can develop at any age, though it most often emerges in adolescence or young adulthood. This disorder causes unexpected, unpredictable periods of intense fear and anxiety, often in response to “triggers” that may not be readily apparent.

  3. Agoraphobia is an intense fear of the outside world. Children with agoraphobia are terrified of venturing out for any reason and feel they are the safest at home.

  4. Social phobia is also known as social anxiety disorder. Children with social phobia experience intense fear of social situations. 

Causes and risk factors of phobia disorder

Just like other anxiety disorders phobias can also be caused by any combination of factors that relate to physical health, environmental factors, genetic vulnerability, and biochemical disturbances.

  1. Biological Factors
    Anxiety and fear can be inherited i.e. a child can inherit the parent’s tendency toward excessive anxiety. A child who has a family member with any of the anxiety disorders is more likely to be similarly affected. 
    Genetics help direct the way brain chemicals (called neurotransmitters) work. Imbalances in certain neurotransmitters might play a role in how the brain works, which can affect moods and emotions and increase the likelihood of developing anxiety disorders. If specific brain chemicals such as dopamine, nor-epinephrine or serotonin are in a short supply it can cause anxiety.
  1. Environmental factors
    Stressful, chaotic, or unstable family relationships and home environment can also make children more prone to experiencing anxiety. Bullying or abuse may also be a contributing factor.
  1. Learned behaviours
    Growing up in a family where other members are fearful or anxious can also "teach" a child to be afraid or excessively worry.
    In addition to that behavioural inhibitions, negative or traumatic life events and physical health problems early in childhood may lead to the development of phobias in children.

Signs and symptoms

A specific phobia involves an intense, irrational and persistent fear of a specific object or situation that might not be posing any actual risk. Specific phobias can also occur along with other types of anxiety disorders.

Common categories of specific phobias are a fear of:

  • Situations, such as enclosed spaces or going to school
  • Nature, such as weather or heights
  • Animals or insects, such as spiders
  • Blood, injection or injury or medical procedures
  • Others, such as choking or vomiting

Each specific phobia is referred to by its own term. Examples of more common terms include acrophobia for the fear of heights and claustrophobia for the fear of enclosed spaces.

All phobias lead to the following reactions:

  • An immediate feeling of intense fear, anxiety and panic when encountered with the fear causing stimulus. 
  • feeling powerless to control fears despite knowing that they are unreasonable or exaggerated.
  • Doing everything possible to avoid the object or situation 
  • Difficulty functioning normally because of the fear
  • Physical manifestation of anxiety in the form of sweating, rapid heartbeat and difficulty in breathing
  • Feeling nauseated or dizzy 
  • In children, possibly tantrums, clinging, crying, or refusing to leave a parent


The best treatment for phobias is a form of therapy called exposure therapy. Goal of the treatment is to focus on how to reduce the avoidance behaviour that has developed over time.

The treatment aims to improve quality of life so that your child is no longer limited by their phobias. Treatment is usually directed at one specific phobia at a time and depends on the type and severity of your child’s symptoms

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