How Children Develop Fears and Anxiety Disorders

Medical Reviewer

Many of the features of anxiety and depression found in adults can also be seen in children. The most obvious difference in children is their age and stage of development. Anxiety in children is a perfectly normal part of growing up. Indeed the fears that that the average child experiences can be matched against their age, as can some of the most common anxiety disorders.

Here's a brief overview of the typical development of fears and associated anxiety disorders:

0-6 months

New born babies occupy a highly sensory world. At this stage babies show a fear response to loud noises, intense sensory stimuli and loss of support.

6-12 months

Towards 12 months the child has developed a sense that other people are available, predictable and consistent - a period known as object constancy. The main fears associated with this phase of development are strangers and being separated from the parent.

1-4 years

During this stage of development the child increasingly uses their imagination but finds difficulty in separating reality from fantasy. This becomes a time for fearing monsters, strange creatures, shadows and being in the dark. Separation anxiety can become more noticeable. In rarer cases a condition known as selective mutism may be seen. Selective mutism is a form of social anxiety that manifests as an extreme shyness. The child may only speak in situations where they feel comfortable but may remain mute in situations where they would normally be expected to speak.

5-7 years

By this stage of development children are able to think in a concrete and logical fashion. The main fears tend to be around personal injury, natural disasters and animals. Children in this age range may develop animal phobias and blood phobias.

8-11 years

Self esteem begins to develop around personal achievements and performance such as academic ability or being good at sports. Fears are likewise associated with poor academic or poor sports performance. Anxieties may manifest themselves in terms of exam performance and/or school phobia.

12-18 years

Esteem has shifted towards peer relationships. The young person is perfectly able to anticipate future dangers and may spend a great deal of time worrying and picking over scenarios that involve friends, teachers, acquaintances, etc. Probably the main fear at this stage is peer rejection. The main anxiety-related disorders are social phobias, agoraphobia and panic disorder.

(listed adapted from Carr, 2006: 462, & cited in Davey, G. (2008) Clinical Psychology. Hodder)

Despite what may appear to be an alarming number of fears, the fact remains that these fears are a natural and usually transient phase in the development of most children. Unless they develop into a situation that disrupts the life of the child in any significant fashion they are unlikely to be viewed as a disorder that may require intervention.

The role of the parent or caregiver can be highly influential as to how they can offer reassurance, stability and consistency during the child's development.