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What Is a Phobia?


The American Psychiatric Association says that a phobia is an irrational and excessive fear of an object or situation. Usually a phobic person feels a sense of endangerment. How can you tell if your child has a phobia? What can you do?

Your child might have a real phobia, not just a mild aversion to certain social or school situations, or to something else that might affect his or her comfort level in everyday life. Some symptoms of a phobia are:

  • Dizziness
  • Breathlessness
  • Nausea
  • A sense of unreality
  • Fear of dying

In some cases, these symptoms can escalate into a full-scale anxiety attack. As a consequence of these symptoms, some individuals begin to isolate themselves, leading to severe difficulties in daily life.

In general, phobias are of three kinds: Social phobias—fear of social situations; fear of particular places or of being out in the open; and fears of various specific things, such as snakes or spiders or birds.

Those specific phobias tend to be fears of the natural environment, such as a fear of thunderstorms; fears of animals; or fears of such things as seeing blood or visiting a doctor.

How Common Are Phobias? How Are They Treated?

Phobias are the most common mental disorder in the United States, with about 10% of the population suffering from some sort of phobia. (That's about as many people, it's estimated, as are left-handed!)

The good news is, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, only about 10 percent of reported cases become life-long phobias, meaning that 9 out of 10 sufferers do find relief from their phobias, or the phobias just go away. There are certainly transitory, mild phobias in childhood, which can be triggered by something like seeing a graphic video or photographic image.

Different Kinds of Treatments are Available for Phobias

Exposure treatments make the sufferer "face up" to his or her phobia, sometimes to the extent of "flooding" the person with the feared experience.

Another treatment is counter-conditioning, in which the patient is taught a new response instead of panic. This teaching might include relaxation techniques.

Stay Calm Yourself

If you believe your child has a phobia, not just a mild or transitory aversion, you should consult professional help. A less-than-systematic approach to dealing with a child's phobia is almost certain to be less effective than a systematic approach supervised by a professional. Again, most childhood fears, even those that rise to the level of phobia, are transitory and treatable, so Don't Panic! A calm, nurturing parent is a fearful child's best ally!


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