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Back to School Phobias

What Parents Should Know

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Updated July 25, 2009

Most children experience some nervousness at the beginning of a new school year. New teachers, new classes and a whole new routine can leave even the most even-tempered child frazzled and exhausted in the first few weeks. Most of the time, children settle into a routine and quickly work through their early jitters.

For some children, however, normal anxiety gives way to more serious fears. Phobias are common in children. In fact, the majority of specific phobias appear by the time the sufferer is seven years old. Fortunately, most childhood phobias respond well to treatment. Children may not share their fears, so it often falls to parents to monitor their kids. Here are some things to look for in children of various ages.

Elementary School

According to developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, children are in the "concrete operational stage" of cognitive development from the ages of approximately seven to eleven. Their fears tend to reflect the concrete way in which they see their environment. Common phobias in elementary school aged children include fears of thunderstorms, animals, and the dark. School-related phobias may also develop, such as a fear of bigger kids or a fear of a teacher that is perceived as “mean.”

Children of this age often demonstrate their anxiety by regressing. They may become clingy, refuse to go into the classroom without a parent and cry or throw tantrums. They may also freeze or run when confronted with the feared situation. Physical complaints such as stomach aches are also common, and usually follow a pattern.

Middle School

Again, according to Piaget, most children enter the "formal operational stage" of development near the beginning of their middle school years. Pre-teens begin to understand abstract topics such as love, and begin to explore "shades of gray." It's also a time of immense pressure for many kids, as they struggle to establish their identities, forge more adult friendships and begin to plan for their futures.

The most common phobias in this age group tend to focus on school-related topics. "School phobia" is a general term that may apply to any fears that make the child reluctant to go to school. School phobia is thought to be related to separation anxiety, but may also stem from bullying or humiliation, or a simple reaction to new pressures.

Many kids of this age react to their fears through defiance. They may become argumentative or withdrawn, develop friendships with troublemakers, skip school or even turn to alcohol or drugs. Some children regress instead, becoming clingy and overly dependent on the parent.

High School

High school is a whirlwind time of changes and pressures. Kids of this age are torn between wanting to become adults and wanting to extend their childhoods. They worry about their grades, wonder if they will get into good colleges and struggle to develop adult relationships with their friends and dating partners.

Agoraphobia and social phobia are most common among this age group. Social phobia can be related to the body image issues that plague many teens. It may be restricted to a single situation, such as a fear of speaking in front of the class, or may be all-encompassing, making teens scared to be seen in public. Agoraphobia may develop out of an untreated social phobia or another disorder, or may appear alone. Agoraphobic teens may severely restrict their activities out of a fear of losing control in public.

Teens generally display many of the same phobia symptoms as adults. They may refuse to participate in certain activities. They may shake, sweat or show signs of illness before or during a confrontation with the feared activity. Teens may also turn to alcohol or drugs as an escape. They may spend a great deal of time alone, and may gradually develop depression or other disorders.

Helping Your Child Confront a Phobia

Although some phobias spontaneously go away without treatment, others will gradually worsen until treatment is obtained. However, it can be difficult for parents to know how to help, especially if the child is reluctant to discuss the situation.

If you notice a change in your child’s behavior, talk to him or her about your concerns. Keep your tone light and friendly, as kids are extremely perceptive to the moods of others. Ask him directly about his fears, but avoid making accusations.

Be supportive - within reason. Many parents’ first reaction is to force the child to confront the fear. While flooding can be an effective professional technique, it should not be tried by anyone who is not trained in its use. Forcing your child into a feared situation could cause psychological damage.

Yet, on the other hand, don’t be too supportive. Some parents go to the opposite extreme, shielding their children from any possibility of confronting the feared situation. This can reinforce the phobia, making it much more difficult to treat.

Whether to seek treatment can be a difficult call for parents. If your child has a specific phobia that is not greatly impacting his or her life, you might want to wait it out. Specific phobias in children are generally not diagnosed until they have been present for at least six months. In the meantime, be calm and reassuring with your child, and help him or her talk through the fear.

Social phobia and agoraphobia should be treated more aggressively, as should persistent specific phobias. The family doctor is a great place to start. He or she can ensure that there is nothing medically wrong with the child, and provide a reference to a trusted therapist.

Treatment may take many forms, depending on your child’s needs. Play therapy for younger children and medication are especially common. Look for a therapist that makes both you and your child comfortable. You will be an important part of your child’s phobia treatment.

Sources:

American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th Ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

Huitt, W., & Hummel, J. (2003). Piaget's theory of cognitive development. Educational Psychology Interactive. Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University. Retrieved June 13, 2008 from http://chiron.valdosta.edu/whuitt/col/cogsys/piaget.html

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