"Come on, Marisa!" all 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: foe-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. A kid who has a phobia will be afraid of something every time she sees or experiences it - she 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 a kid has a phobia and is forced to face what makes her scared, she may get very nervous and have a panic attack. This can make her feel even more anxious and upset.
What's a Panic Attack Like?
When a kid who has a phobia is forced to face what makes her scared, she may have a panic attack. Panic attacks can be really scary, and may make a person shake, sweat, and breathe quickly. Some people who have panic attacks may have chest pains, feel dizzy, or feel like their heart is pounding and they can't breathe. A panic attack can cause a kid to think something awful is going to happen, that she can't escape, or that she 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 someone who is having one, they can feel much longer. Sometimes, even if a kid knows that her phobia doesn't make sense, she may not be able to stop her 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 social phobia. A social phobia can make someone feel terrified 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 she might be afraid of walking in front of the classroom when she needs to go to the girls' room. A social phobia can make it nearly impossible for a kid to stand up and give a book report or even enjoy herself at 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, a kid with a social phobia becomes so afraid that she isn't able to 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 she just can't control her fear of being with others.
Agoraphobia (say: uh-gore-uh-foe-bee-uh) is another kind of phobia. This causes a person 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 (crowds, highways, a busy store) where they might have a panic attack.
Marisa's fear of riding in the elevator was caused by claustrophobia (say: claw-stroh-foe-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: ah-rak-nuh-foe-bee-uh) is a fear of spiders, whereas ablutophobia (say: uh-blue-toe-foe-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 may have a parent with one, too. Sometimes a traumatic thing in a kid's life - like the death of a parent, dealing with her parents' divorce, or a big move - can cause a phobia to start.
Scientists do know some things about phobias, though. They know that about five 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 one of these specialists diagnoses a kid with a phobia, he or she can help.
Some kids will take medications that help them better handle their phobias and lead a more normal life. Sometimes a psychologist will work with a kid on different ways to deal with the phobia. This might involve learning special techniques that can help a kid relax, or deep-breathing exercises that can make her feel more in control. In some cases, a psychologist may work with a kid to expose her to what makes her scared, just a little bit at a time. Slowly, as the kid gets used to seeing or experiencing the scary thing, she can get more control over her phobia. Depending on the kid and how severe her 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: David Sheslow, PhD
Date reviewed: May 2001
Source: KidsHealth www.KidsHealth.com is a project of The Nemours Foundation which is dedicated to improving the health and spirit of children. Today, as part of its continuing mission, the Foundation supports the operation of a number of renowned children's health facilities throughout the nation, including the Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Delaware, and the Nemours Children's Clinics throughout Florida. Visit The Nemours Foundation to find out more about them and its health facilities for children http://www.nemours.org/no/