Young children often have irrational fears, such as being afraid of the dark or worrying about monsters under the bed. Usually, as children get older, they learn that these fears are unfounded and "grow out of the fear." But sometimes fears persist or new fears crop up. When these fears become persistent and interfere with a teen’s life, they are considered phobias.
A phobia is an intense and irrational fear of a specific object or situation. Instead of being afraid of monsters, teens might be afraid of dogs, heights, elevators, water or storms. Usually, teens understand that these fears are irrational but they feel powerless to stop the fear. For example, your teen might become agitated and fearful of storms. He may refuse to go outside or even leave the house if there is the possibility of a storm. His fear may be so intense that he avoids all outdoor activities or refuses to go out with friends if it is cloudy.
It is easy to pinpoint where some fears come from, for example, your teen may have been bitten or attacked by a dog and ever since is fearful of all dogs. But not all phobias have concrete beginnings. Some fears are learned from parents or other adults, for example if a parent is afraid of going in water, your may pick up on the fear and also be afraid of water. Others seem to have no specific cause.
Fear or Phobia?
It is hard to know the difference between normal fears and phobias. While a phobia should be diagnosed by a medical professional, there are some questions you can ask yourself:
- How intense is your fear? Can you let the fear go or does it continue to bother you, despite reassurance from others?
- Do you experience physical symptoms with your fear, such as shaking, sweating or crying?
- Do you take measures to avoid the object or situation? For example, if you are afraid of dogs you may refuse to go to a friend’s house if there is a dog there.
- Do you have a fear of your fear? Do you worry that something may happen to trigger your fear?
- If you know you will be in the situation that you fear or come in contact with the object you fear, do you worry endlessly beforehand? For example, if you are invited to an outdoor picnic, do you worry for days that you may be outside when there is a storm?
Answering yes to these questions may indicate that you should talk with your doctor about your feelings. If you have any fears that interfere with your ability to enjoy your life, no matter how trivial the fear may seem, it is best to talk with someone.
You may be worried or embarrassed about getting treatment for your phobia. But, phobias that go untreated often get worse with time. Instead of having your fear control your life, reach out to talk with your doctor. You may need to talk with your parents first as they may need to go to the doctor with you.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one type of treatment for phobias. This type of treatment works to help you change how you react to the situation or object and find ways for you to cope with your fear.
CBT frequently includes exposure therapy, which means you will gradually be exposed to the object or situation until you begin to feel comfortable. For example, if you are afraid of dogs, the therapist may have you look at pictures of dogs until you can do so without fear. She may then have videos of dogs. Then she may have a dog come into the session but stay on the other side of a glass window. Next, the dog might come into the room, but stay a distance from you. Slowly the dog comes closer to where you are sitting. This type of therapy may take weeks, depending on how comfortable you are each time the dog comes closer.
Your therapist may suggest a group therapy program, where you will meet and talk with other teens who have similar fears.
Other treatments include antidepressant or antianxiety medications, however, your doctor may recommend that you try other types of therapy before trying medications.
Remember, phobias and other types of anxiety can be treated and you have a great chance of success in overcoming your phobia. There is no reason why a phobia should stop you from missing out on the many great experiences of being a teenager.
"Fears and Phobias - Older Children and Teenagers," Date Unknown, Staff Writer, Women’s and Children’s Health Network
"Your Adolescent - Anxiety and Avoidant Disorders," Date Unknown, Staff Writer, American Academy of Child Adolescent Psychiatry