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I'm Scared!

My son is afraid. No, he's not a fraidy-cat -- not everything scares him. But offer him a ride on a Ferris Wheel or a water slide or any other amusement park ride that goes high and forget it.

Clearly, we should have remembered that when we bought the family package of tickets to a Washington Capitals game recently. The boys were excited. Mom and Dad were thrilled at our rare family treat and thought nothing of the fact that the seats were in the nosebleed section. After all, there are few bad seats at the Verizon Center.

The family euphoria held through the Metro trip into the city and all the way until we were climbing to our seats. And that's when FEAR showed its ugly head. Have you ever climbed the stairs to those seats way up high? They're almost like climbing a ladder with no railing -- straight up. And my fearful son wanted nothing to do with them. Once we got him settled, he was not about to move. EVER! It actually took two men holding his hands from two sides to get my little acrophobe down from those seats.

The American Academy of Pediatrics cites a study showing that 43 percent of kids between 6 and 12 have fears and concerns. For some, it's darkness. For others, barking dogs or death or even automatic flush toilets. Treatment, the AAP says, is to talk with your child about his fears and let him know they are okay. And if he doesn't easily overcome them, a gradual desensitization process, in which you expose the child to small levels of the fear, may be in order.

Guess we'll be working on this one step at a time!

What things are your children afraid of and how do you handle their fears?

By Stacey Garfinkle |  February 27, 2008; 7:00 AM ET  | Category:  Child Development , Elementary Schoolers , Preschoolers
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I think it depends on the child. My son is much more cautious than my daughter, who would willingly hitchhike to Vegas if she could only open the door without assistance. Some of the fears are irrational (like that wolves will somehow get into the house and spirit him away), and some are more grounded in fact (like that he'll fall off his bike if he rides fast). I am constantly having to stop myself from saying "Be careful" because I am probably more cautious than I need to be as a mom. This is something I'll bet a lot of parents (particularly women) struggle with.

Posted by: WorkingMomX | February 27, 2008 7:54 AM | Report abuse

At the start of potty training, automatic flush toilets used to scare the sh** (no pun intended) out of my children every time. Especially the really loud ones! Now we kind of laugh about it and try to finish before it happens!

The giant ball of fire and multiple loud noises at any and all Japanese Steak Houses terrify my one daughter. We went once about a year ago and she sat in my lap cowering for the entire meal. We went again in December with more people (for distractions) and talked about it ahead of time and really prepared her. She did a little better and actually ate her dinner. Even if she did sit way back in her chair and made me keep my arm around her the whole time!

Posted by: LBH219 | February 27, 2008 8:07 AM | Report abuse

"Guess we'll be working on this one step at a time" - one 'step' at a time - HA!!

Our 5-year old was worried about having to have a C-section one day. We talked about it and she's fine now.

Posted by: Anonymous | February 27, 2008 8:09 AM | Report abuse

A little boy I babysit for is terrified of my cat. He screams, cries and refuses to go in a room if the cat (who is usually asleep) is there. He has never been scratched or seen one of my girls scratched. I try to have him watch my kids pet and play with the cat. I have tried holding him and the cat. So far, nothing has helped. In warmer months, it isn't so bad because the cat goes outside, but the last 2 months have been brutal!

Posted by: Momof5 | February 27, 2008 8:37 AM | Report abuse

I was a very fearful (read: dysfunctionally) child, and the best thing my parents did was take me to a psychologist...I am now a reasonably functional adult who works with kids and sees similar behaviors in those children. They also did not pooh-pooh my fears or tell me to ignore them. One poster has mentioned identifying situations that cause fear (not always easy) and talking about them beforehand. A lot of what I think scares kids is being surprised and out of control of a situation. The more you try to force the fear-causing situation on them without working with them to find coping skills to deal with the source of the fear, the worse it will be.

Posted by: rehabilitated grownup | February 27, 2008 8:46 AM | Report abuse

I second the comment on the automatic flush toilets. My kids were both terrified of them when they were potty training. Made it very difficult to get them to use the potty at stores, parks, etc. I think that whoever invented them must not have had small children.

Posted by: acorn | February 27, 2008 9:05 AM | Report abuse

Not that I have an irrational fear of heights, but when I'm climbing the stairs of an areana, I'm well aware of the fact that one wrong step could land me in a body cast. Yeah, climbing those steps makes me break out in a cold sweat too.

I think there is a universal fear that all children have - shots! they hate shots and needles, even though ripping off the band-aid afterwards causes more pain than the blood test itself. My advice on this issue is NOT to talk with your child about it when taking them to the doctor's office for vaccinations. If your child brings up the "shots" topic, say as little as possible. Deny it, lie if you have to. Whatever you do, please don't torture your kid with the fear by "talking it out" strategy, it only makes a bad situation 10 times worse. Every good nurse (and dentist) tries their best to hide the implement of pain, known as the schring, to their patients before administering the shot.

Posted by: dandyLion | February 27, 2008 9:07 AM | Report abuse

I had the opposite problem as a child...not afraid of anything! My poor mom...(sorry, mom!). A little fear is a good thing.

Posted by: ME | February 27, 2008 9:16 AM | Report abuse

That verizon center is one scarey thing for anyone! I have seen people trip and fall over and down multiple aisles. It's a rational fear. I think the irrational fears are one to be concerned about.

Posted by: jb | February 27, 2008 9:41 AM | Report abuse

I had few fears at a child beyond the dark (thanks to a viewing of the Canterville Ghost at about 8 years of age) and escalators (thanks to Resuce 911 who kept showing kids who would fall and get their hair sucked in).

I am however, extremely phobic of vomit. Panic Attack shakes all that when someone feels sick or if i'm in a situation where people could vomit. I have an arsneal of anti nausea drugs for myself. I dread the day my child arrives with its germs and spit up and vomit. I hope my husband can handle it.

Posted by: phobicpheobe | February 27, 2008 9:49 AM | Report abuse

When I was little, I had a serious fear of the washing machine. I was afraid it would chase me down and gobble me up.

Posted by: DandyLion | February 27, 2008 9:54 AM | Report abuse

My childhood fears: snakes, hypodermic needles, deep water, closed in places, horses, rides at the annual carnival, my Uncle Carl. The only cure is avoidance. I do not go where there are snakes, deep water or horses. I don't go to the carnival anymore, and I haven't seen Uncle Carl in years. It didn't help that my parents' method of raising their kids was to scare them if they didn't want us to do something. 'Don't go upstairs, there's a boogey man up there and he'll get you.'

Posted by: Anonymous | February 27, 2008 10:00 AM | Report abuse

thank goodness someone else had kids that were afraid of the automatic flushing toilets! our daughter only recently grew out of that fear.. it took almost 6 years of patience, patience, patience.....

talking about it with them helps..especially if you can relay one of your own childhood fears that you have overcome...

Posted by: kfoley311 | February 27, 2008 10:20 AM | Report abuse

When I was a kid, I also had an overwhelming fear of heights. My Mom recently told me that was the reason my parents enrolled me in a gymnastics class. They figured it would be a fun, easy way to get me used to heights. It must have worked. Although I'm still not a fan of heights, I haven't let it stop me from hiking and rock climbing!

Ironically enough, I was never afraid of shots as a kid. When I was three or four, I went in for a routine immunization, calmly watched the nurse administer the shot and then said "Thank you." Needless to say, the nurse was a little surprised.

Posted by: advisor | February 27, 2008 10:24 AM | Report abuse

As a child I was terrified of revolving doors...I thought they'd get stuck and I'd be trapped in and suffocate. I still avoid them, when possible.

Posted by: Anonymous | February 27, 2008 10:26 AM | Report abuse

Phobicpheobe--I had the same phobia about vomiting all through my childhood and into adulthood. When one of my siblings would get sick, I'd move into the basement to sleep until the rest of the family was better. Hearing someone vomit would make me gag or break out into a cold sweat. It was awful! Before having kids, I told my husband that I'd happily change diapers, but HE had to deal with any vomiting because I just couldn't do it.

Then my daughter had reflux. For the first seven or eight months of her life, she vomited copious amounts multiple times a day. Every time she ate, she threw up. This also seems to have given her an amazing gag reflex--at age nine she STILL throws up way more often than a normal kid. We used to joke that she'd be potty trained for vomiting before she was potty trained in the normal fashion, and darned if we weren't right! The upshot of all of this: I got over my phobia really quickly. I guess desensitization therapy boot camp works!

Posted by: Sarah | February 27, 2008 10:46 AM | Report abuse

I have a 6 year old that used to be afraid of water, puppets, flashing lights, rides, clowns, crowds, fire, and even falling asleep because he was worried about having bad dreams. What got us through was patience. The worst was when he was 1 1/2 and was TERRIFIED of baths. I had to sponge bathe him for six months. Any "kid" event had clowns and I always had to ask them to keep their distance. We respected his fear, but tried to act like it wasn't too big a deal. Baths are now his favorite activity and at age 5 actually jumped into an ocean and had a great time! He now likes to try and "control" his dreams. A clown was out at a restaurant last week. My little boy started by hiding under the table, but by the end he was asking for a baloon animal. Afterwards he said. "Mom, if I didn't talk to the clown, I wouldn't have gotten this great croccodile baloon!." I think our job as parents is to get them through situations with support and patience, and they will come up with the breakthroughs!

Posted by: LS | February 27, 2008 10:53 AM | Report abuse

My daughter was extremely scared of the automatic toiets. Mainly because her head wasn't high enough to trigger the laser light thing. So, I would hold my hand over the red light, and she would be fine.

My son doesn't like the dark. Says it's too freaky. He likes to sleep with the door open and the hall light on. He doesn't mind that it gets turned off later on.

Neither fear is out of control, though. Unlike my claustrophobia! Luckily, I don't find myself in that situation often! My mother was very claustrophobic as well. So, I am curious to see if either of my kids have the same phobia? I wonder if phobias can run in the family?

Posted by: prarie dog | February 27, 2008 11:07 AM | Report abuse

As a child, I had fears my mother didn't know about until I was an adult and over them, because I also had tricks to overcome them, and the monsters themselves had some pretty strict behavioral limits.

Snakes crawling under the covers at the foot of the bed: They can only crawl in an 18-inch-wide band across the bottom of the bed. Sleep in a fetal position.

Vampires in the closet: they can only attack when you're awake, and if your eyes are closed, they have to give you the benefit of the doubt. Keep lights off, keep eyes closed.

Monster walking up and down the hall: can't leave the hall, can't attack parents regardless. Stay in room. (Later, I realized that this one had to be my heartbeat.)

Monster under bed: get into bed quickly.

Posted by: Kate | February 27, 2008 11:13 AM | Report abuse

While some phobias may not have a clear source, it's important to remember that your young child takes her clues from you, the all-knowing parent. If you're visibly worried about their reaction to getting a shot, that tension might make them more fearful. I try to be the calming Zen influence while being very sympathetic and actively listening to her fears.

Then, especially if they've been able to avoid hysterics, ask them afterwards how they feel. The actual event probably wasn't nearly as distressing as their anxiety. Older kids can use the fact that the fear was worse than the event to work on getting their phobia under control.

Posted by: The Cosmic Avenger | February 27, 2008 11:20 AM | Report abuse

Prairie dog: Our family would be prime candidates for a phobia study. I have grown relatives who have never driven across the Bay Bridge because of their phobias. Some have never flown in a plane. I white-knuckeled it through the Chesapeake Bay Bridge/Tunnel that connects Norfolk to the Eastern Shore of Virginia, heart pounding, gasping for air the whole time. I'll never do that again. My grandmother's major fear was snakes and that trickled down to her children and grandchildren. I can't even look at pictures of snakes. Even stopped reading the National Geographic because if it had a story about jungles or deserts, there would be a photo of a snake. EEEEEEWWWWW!

It's logical -- if an adult shows signs of a phobia, a child is going to pick up on it, too. After all, adults are supposed to be fearless, right? Now I'm on anti-anxiety drugs and can deal with it. Without the drugs, I'd still be curled in a fetal position, afraid to go outside of the house.

Oh, and one more thing. I always had a fear of being swallowed up in a stream of molten lava from an eruptong volcano. Since we lived in central Maryland and I found out there are no volcanoes nearby, that fear disappeared.

Posted by: Snake, water, horse fears... | February 27, 2008 11:20 AM | Report abuse

I find that things happen way too fast for me to properly prepare my kid for all eventualities. I took him to his checkup and my wife told him there would be no shots. The doctor told us she was wrong: there were shots. So I had about 2 minutes to make him feel good as the nurse went to get the shots. Or my son wakes up at 3:30am afraid of something and I have to work with him so he stays in bed while knowing that I have an immovable 8:30am meeting.

But what I hate the most are his friends who in a matter of a week got him to be afraid of dogs. No one we're friends with keeps pets of course, so it's dang hard in 2008 to expose him to animals he can play with and get more comfortable with. So these kids told him stories and now he's scared of dogs we see.

Right now I convinced him to at least talk to the dogs and it's getting better.

Posted by: Anonymous | February 27, 2008 11:32 AM | Report abuse

I used to hate going in the water at the beach because I was afraid crabs would pinch my toes off. Then I saw the movie Jaws and that pretty much cleared up my fear of crabs.

Posted by: DandyLion | February 27, 2008 11:37 AM | Report abuse

That little fellow doesn't have a phobia; he has vertigo. That is a matter of his inner ear, and it is not going to go away ever. When he is forty years old, he will still have vertigo.

Posted by: moimeme | February 27, 2008 11:59 AM | Report abuse

When my daughter was about 3 she was terrified of backhoes. I forget the name she had for them. She saw one on a neighboring lot that had come to do a perk test and that started it. Once she said that it was going to come and bite her eyes. Poor kid! I guess they can look like monsters. Luckily it wasn't something we encountered often. She doesn't seem to have any serious phobias now, as a young adult.

Posted by: catherine | February 27, 2008 12:00 PM | Report abuse

I was never afraid of automatic flush toilets, but I was afraid of airplane bathrooms. When I was 7 or 8 (before they had handicapped ones on planes) I had to go, and my mom was taking care of my infant brother, so she let me go by myself. When I was done, I could unlock the door enough to turn out the lights, but for some reason it was stuck and wouldn't unlatch fully! so I was in the dark, in those impossibly tiny bathrooms in the front of the plane, banging on the door, etc... finally I managed to unstick it, and the entire first class section was staring at me! Talk about scary and embarrassing to an 8 yr old.... I didn't go to the bathroom on a plane again for about 15 years, until I flew to Taiwan. I can hold it a long time, but not 12 hours - lol!

Posted by: Kelly | February 27, 2008 12:32 PM | Report abuse

When my daughter was small she would periodically "see" something in her room that scared her and would call us. Acting on a friend's suggestion, I put some water in a small spray bottle and would "spray" the room to repell the ghost or monster. One night she was sure she saw a tiger and I happened to have tiger spray. When I squirted a few random areas, I asked her if there was anywhere else I should spray and she said "Spray the tiger!"
Now she fears trying new foods and being told to clean her room.

Posted by: Angela | February 27, 2008 12:44 PM | Report abuse

My now-12-year-old daughter is afraid of power failures; she absolutely hates it when the electricity goes out, which it does with disappointing frequency in our area, and she's had this fear since she was little.

She has also always been afraid of loud noises, like thunder, fireworks, etc. We've watched the 4th of July fireworks on TV for the past decade; the last time we went out, she was two and wanted to go with her best friend, and she gave it a good try with the ear-protection headphones I use when mowing the lawn, but we ended up leaving after the second

My son, who's 6, takes a lot of his cues from his big sister. When he was 3 or 4, whenver a storm blew in and my daughter dove under the covers, he'd run to the window to watch! Now, though, he tends to run for cover whenever she does.

Posted by: Dadbert | February 27, 2008 12:54 PM | Report abuse

Snake, water, horse fears... : Lava, huh? At the start of school, my son had to write a poem about himself. One line read: "Who fears darkness, tsunamis, and lava"

He also did something I thought was pretty brave - he wants to be an announcer in the talent show at school to overcome his stage fright.

Posted by: prarie dog | February 27, 2008 1:27 PM | Report abuse

I will agree with Cosmic Avenger and the other poster who talked about getting fears from other people.

I was not afraid of the water until I was about 11 or 12. I met a camp counselor who was terrified of water. After that, I pretty quickly became scared of the water and it wasn't until last summer (I just turned 40) that I was able to swim in a pool without being nervous. Before this... I typically didn't do more than dip my toes in the water. I am also extremely anxious when I am in canoes or small boats. I go out because I enjoy being on the water despite my fears but they can be overwhelming and spoil the fun - sometimes significantly.

Posted by: Billie | February 27, 2008 2:13 PM | Report abuse

I think knowing the source is a good thing, but it all kinda tends to come from "things aren't in my control and I don't even know how bad it could be" even if it gets transferred to something fantasy related.

So I think dealing with the fears when they come up calmly, respectfully, talking to the kid as a person and not putting down their feelings can go a long way.

Sometimes things just happen and you get through them.

Posted by: Liz D | February 27, 2008 2:36 PM | Report abuse

I don't think the fear of those stairs is unreasonable- they are pretty dangerous since there's no railing. One wrong step could cause a pretty nasty injury.

Oh- those auto-flush toilets- I read a suggestion somewhere that you should keep some post-its in the diaper bag and stick one over the sensor to keep it from going off. I think all toddlers are scared of that! Plus, they never, ever seem to go off at the right time.

My DD isn't scared of much, but when she was a baby she would cry whenever a blond person talked to her. I have no idea why- she never had any other stranger anxiety- just the fear of blonds.

Posted by: reston, va | February 27, 2008 2:41 PM | Report abuse

Older son is timid about rollercoaster type rides. If it's a small child ride, he's fine, but if it's an adult one, no way! His little brother loves rollercoasters, so he and I will ride them together, and DH, who also isn't fond of them, will sit it out with older son.

Younger son doesn't like dark, and sometimes gets afraid of monsters after he's in bed. DH borrowed the "monster words" from one of Stephen King's books. Sometimes older son will recite the "monster words" for his younger borther, and sometimes only Dad saying them will get rid of the fears.

We just try to be respectful, not push them when they're uncomfortable, and enjoy the good times.

DH doesn't like bridges. He's okay in the center lanes, but doesn't want to be in the outside lanes where he can see over the edge. I used to be mildly claustrophobic, but at 17 after spending an hour trapped in a stalled elevator with seven other teens, I was pretty much cured of that. I can't see that our boys caught either of our fears.

Posted by: sue | February 27, 2008 2:51 PM | Report abuse

My youngest daughter is afraid of spiders. If she sees one in the bathroom she'll run out screaming. Unless she witnesses the confirmed kill, (she will stand back in the hallway in a state of panic while little brother does the job), she'll use the other bathroom for a week.

Little Miss Muffit!

Posted by: DandyLion | February 27, 2008 3:37 PM | Report abuse


I have the same vomit phobia- I've always thought I was the only one all these years- even to the point of avoiding a toilet if I know someone has vomited in it recently. I really have no other irrational fears- that's it. Thank you for making me feel better! :)

Posted by: Maria | February 27, 2008 4:20 PM | Report abuse

My 5 and 3 y.o. boys, particularly the older one, are PETRIFIED of dogs. One friend with dogs always puts the dogs upstairs when anyone visits (she doesn't want to be liable in case there is any sort of kid-dog incident). Other friends keep the dogs around but -- obviously -- keep them from jumping on little visitors. I assure my guys that "the dog's people" won't let it hurt them, and I hope they will eventually get past their fear, if not their caution, by occasionally exposure. My younger one usually gets desensitized pretty quickly in the course of a visit (although he'll definitely register surprise when a dog appears and he wasn't expecting it). My older one will just scream whenever a dog is around. It's hard, b/c DH and I both like dogs!

Posted by: nvamom | February 27, 2008 4:29 PM | Report abuse

I think auto-flushers would have done in my iittle sister. Shen she was being toilet trained, big brother left the seat up. She didn't know the difference, was being proud of 'doing it herself' and got stuck butt in cold water, armpits and knees locking her in place; n

She used the potty chair for a way long time...

I have sympathy for the kid in the stadium. I am still a little freaked out by that situation--in college a friend's dad took us to a Chiefs game, as we came out of the portal into the stadium my friend looked out, turned me around and up the stairs and said "don't look until you're sitting down." I was pretty much frozen in place until the game was over, we were almost at the top of Arrowhead seating.

Posted by: dragonet2 | February 28, 2008 2:39 PM | Report abuse

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