Phobias

"Come on, Marisa!" all of the fifth graders yelled from inside the big elevators. "Hurry up, don't you want to get to the top?"

Marisa looked glum and thought to herself, "Of course I want to get to the top — that's why I came on this field trip." But when she glanced back at her friends, she felt jealous — how come none of them were terrified of riding in the elevator?

"I'm OK," she said as brightly as she could. "I'll take the stairs and meet you there." When she realized how many stairs that would be, Marisa wasn't too happy. But she breathed a sigh of relief knowing that she wouldn't have to take that scary elevator ride.

What's a Phobia?

A phobia (say: fo-bee-uh) is the fancy name for a fear. But a phobia isn't just any kind of fear. It's normal for kids to be afraid of things — like taking a hard test at school, passing a growling dog on the street, or hearing a huge clap of thunder.

A phobia is different because it is an extremely strong fear of a situation or thing. It is also a kind of fear that doesn't go away. Kids who have a phobia will be afraid of something every time they see or experience it. They won't just be afraid once or twice. Kids who have phobias often go out of their way to avoid the situation or thing that scares them.

That's why Marisa had to take the stairs. She has a phobia of being in closed-in spaces and was too scared to take the elevator. Sometimes, when forced to face what's scary, a kid with a phobia might get very nervous and have a panic attack.

What's a Panic Attack Like?

Panic attacks can be really scary and may make someone shake, sweat, and breathe quickly. Some people who have panic attacks might have chest pains, feel dizzy, or feel like their hearts are pounding and they can't breathe.

A panic attack can cause a kid to think something awful is going to happen, that he or she can't escape or might lose control. Some kids who have panic attacks say that when the attacks are happening, they feel like they can't think straight or that they're "going crazy."

Panic attacks only last a short time. But to somebody who is having one, they can feel much longer. Sometimes, even a kid who knows that the phobia doesn't make sense may not be able to stop the mind and body from reacting and having a panic attack.

Different Kinds of Phobias

There are many different kinds of phobias. The most common kind is a social phobia, which can make someone feel scared of being embarrassed in front of other people.

A kid with a social phobia might feel scared of talking to a teacher or a coach or might be afraid of walking in front of the whole classroom when he or she needs to go to the restroom.

A social phobia can make it nearly impossible for a kid to stand up and give a book report or even enjoy a birthday party. Although most kids might be a little afraid of giving a book report to a big group of kids or talking to a teacher, kids with a social phobia become so afraid that they can't fully enjoy life or function the way other kids do.

Sometimes people may think that a kid with a social phobia is just shy, but it isn't the same thing. A kid with a social phobia may want to go out and have lots of friends, but just can't control the fear of being with others.

Agoraphobia (say: ah-guh-ruh-fo-bee-uh) is another kind of phobia. This causes someone to worry about having a panic attack in a place where leaving would be hard or embarrassing. The fear of the panic is so strong that they often avoid places (like crowds, highways, or a busy store) where they might have a panic attack.

Marisa's fear of riding in the elevator was caused by claustrophobia (say: klos-truh-fo-bee-uh). Claustrophobia is the fear of being in an enclosed space, like an elevator, a tunnel, or an airplane.

There are almost as many phobias as there are things and situations: arachnophobia (say: uh-rak-nuh-fo-bee-uh) is a fear of spiders, whereas ablutophobia (say: uh-bloo-tuh-fo-bee-uh) is a fear of washing yourself or taking a bath or shower.

Why Do Kids Get Phobias?

No one really knows exactly why certain kids get phobias. Some scientists think that a person's genes may have something to do with it, and that a kid who has a social phobia might have a parent with one, too. Sometimes a traumatic thing in a kid's life — like the death of a parent, dealing with a divorce, or a big move — can cause a phobia to start.

Scientists do know some things about phobias, though. They know that about 5 out of 100 people in the United States have one or more phobias. Women are slightly more likely to have phobias than men. Most social phobias start when a person is a teenager, although this and other kinds of phobias can also start when a kid is younger.

How Are Phobias Treated?

Kids who have phobias often start by seeing their doctors. In many cases, the doctor will suggest that the kid visit a psychologist, psychiatrist, or therapist. If a kid is diagnosed with a phobia, one of these specialists can help.

Some kids will take medications that help them better handle their phobias. Sometimes a kid can learn new ways of dealing with the phobia. This could include relaxation exercises that help the kid feel more in control. Part of handling the phobia may be facing it head on.

For instance, part of Marisa's treatment might be riding on an elevator, though she might start slowly by just watching other people get on an elevator or just stepping inside with the doors open.

Depending on the kid and how severe the phobia is, treatment can take weeks, months, or longer. In the meantime, the important thing to remember is that phobias can be treated, and kids can learn to deal with them and feel more in control of their lives.

Reviewed by: Colleen Sherman, PhD
Date reviewed: June 2010

Kids Health

Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

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