A phobia is an identifiable, persistent and excessive fear, often triggered by the presence or anticipation of a specific object or situation.
Common phobias include fear of insects, blood, animals, flying and closed spaces. To be considered a phobia, the identified fear must last at least six months.
There are several types of phobias seen in children and adolescents:
Specific phobia. Anxiety is associated with a specific object or situation. The phobic object or situation is avoided, anticipated with fear, or endured with extreme anxiety to the extent that it interferes with normal routines and activities.
Panic disorder. An unpredictable, unexpected period of intense fear or discomfort compounded by shortness of breath, dizziness, lightheadedness, shaking, fear of losing control, and an increased, racing heart beat (called a panic attack). Symptoms can last several hours, but usually peak after 10 minutes.
Agoraphobia. Agoraphobia is a fear of open spaces, such as being outside or leaving home alone, related to one or more phobias or the fear of having a panic attack.
Social anxiety disorder. Fear of one or more social or performance situations in an age appropriate setting with others within the same age group (for example, school play, recital, giving a speech or book report).
Separation anxiety disorder. This is characterized by fear or anxiety of being separated from an attachment figure, which interferes with regular activities.
Selective mutism. The inability to speak in specific social situations in a child or adolescent who can and does speak in other situations.
Research suggests that both genetic and environmental factors contribute to the onset of phobias. Specific phobias have been associated with a fearful first encounter with the phobic object or situation.
Anxiety disorders are common in all ages, with 25 percent of children and adolescents experiencing an anxiety disorder during their lifetime.
When a child or adolescent is exposed to, or anticipates being exposed to, a specific object or situation, common symptoms include:
To be classified as a panic attack, at least four of the symptoms above must occur with or without a known cause.
Diagnosis and treatment
A child psychiatrist or other qualified mental health professional usually diagnoses anxiety disorders in children or adolescents following a comprehensive psychiatric evaluation. Parents who note signs of severe anxiety in their child or teen can help by seeking an evaluation and treatment early, which can prevent future problems.
Panic disorder, however, may be difficult to diagnose in children and adolescents and may require multiple evaluations and tests in a variety of settings.
Treatment for phobias can be very effective. Depending on the child or adolescent's need, treatment may include:
- Individual therapy
- Cognitive behavioral therapy
- Family therapy