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What is specific phobia?

Specific phobia is a mental health condition in which a child has an extreme and uncontrollable fear of something that is not actually dangerous. Common specific phobias include dogs, clowns, bugs, the dark and loud noises. Being around the thing they are afraid of or even thinking about it causes the child severe anxiety. These children are not anxious in general. It’s just the thing they’re afraid of that upsets them. 

Adults and teenagers with specific phobia usually understand that their fears aren’t logical, but children often don’t understand that. They will put a lot of effort into avoiding the thing they’re afraid of, which can interfere with their daily lives. 

Specific phobia is more common in girls than boys. 

What are the symptoms of specific phobia?

Signs that a child may have specific phobia include: 

  • Extreme fear of a certain object or situation 
  • Having anxiety attacks when they see or even think about the thing that scares them 
  • Crying or throwing tantrums to avoid the thing that scares them 
  • Trembling, dizziness, or sweating in reaction to the thing that scares them 

It’s common for children to have more than one specific phobia. For example, a child might be scared of both dogs and heights. 

How is specific phobia diagnosed?

To be diagnosed with specific phobia, a child must show extreme fear of something not normally considered dangerous. Avoiding the thing they fear must cause problems with daily life. The fear or anxiety must happen nearly every time the child comes into contact with the thing they fear, but the amount of fear can they show can vary. 

Specific phobias usually fall into one of five categories: 

  • Animal Type (dogs, bugs, snakes, etc.) 
  • Natural Environment Type (storms, heights, water, etc.) 
  • Blood-Injection-Injury Type (getting shots, seeing blood or injuries) 
  • Situational Type (flying, driving, small spaces) 
  • Other Type (anything else) 

How is specific phobia treated?

The best treatment for specific phobia is called exposure and response prevention. This means that the child is slowly exposed to the thing they are afraid of over and over, until their fear is not as bad. This treatment works very well for most kids with specific phobia. 

For example, a child who is afraid of dogs would first look at a picture of a dog, then play with a stuffed dog. Eventually they would spend a few minutes with a real small dog.  

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) that teaches skills to deal with anxious thought patterns can also help older kids with specific phobia. Medication is not usually used to treat specific phobia. 

This guide was last reviewed or updated on December 18, 2023.