For Some Kids, Fears Aren’t Reserved for Halloween

“It’s very common for school aged children to have several fears,” says Robyn Wechsler, M.D., an assistant professor at Georgetown University Medical Center and a specialist in child and adolescent psychiatry at Georgetown University Hospital. “It’s estimated as many as 40 percent of children age six to 12 have normal fears, and many children are afraid of several things at once. It’s perfectly normal.”

What are those normal fears? Wechsler says they can include being afraid of the dark, heights, animals and insects, blood and bodily injury, storms, and clowns. Even the recent earthquake in the Northeast might have triggered new fears.

So if fear is normal and common, when does it become something more serious?

“When the fear interferes with daily activities or planned events, there could be a problem,” explains Wechsler. “A child who insists on staying home from school because it’s thundering and lightening might have a more entrenched phobia.”

Another example Wechsler gives is being overly afraid at Halloween. “If your child is so afraid that he or she won’t leave the house to go trick-or-treating with friends and family, the level of distress is beyond that of an age-appropriate fear.” A fix however is close at hand.

Wechsler suggests acknowledging the child’s fear with comments like, “I know it can be scary. Tell me more about your fears.” Then when it’s time to trick-or-treat, take your child’s hand and tell them they are safe, Wechsler says.

The same strategy can be applied to overcoming other common fears. “The most important thing to remember for age-appropriate fears is to acknowledge the fear is real and reassure your child they are safe.”

Wechsler says if fears or phobias persist and significantly interfere with normal activities, it is time to check in with an expert.

About Georgetown University Medical Center

Georgetown University Medical Center is an internationally recognized academic medical center with a three-part mission of research, teaching and patient care (through MedStar Health). GUMC’s mission is carried out with a strong emphasis on public service and a dedication to the Catholic, Jesuit principle of cura personalis — or “care of the whole person.” The Medical Center includes the School of Medicine and the School of Nursing & Health Studies, both nationally ranked; Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, designated as a comprehensive cancer center by the National Cancer Institute; and the Biomedical Graduate Research Organization (BGRO), which accounts for the majority of externally funded research at GUMC including a Clinical Translation and Science Award from the National Institutes of Health. In fiscal year 2010-11, GUMC accounted for 85 percent of the university’s sponsored research funding.