Specific Phobia Basics

Children with a specific phobia have an excessive and uncontrollable fear of an object or situation that triggers so much anxiety it disrupts normal activities. This guide takes a look at how to recognize specific phobias, how they are diagnosed and how they are treated.

Specific Phobia: What Is It?

“Specific phobia” is a disorder characterized by an excessive and irrational fear of an object or situation not normally considered dangerous. Children with specific phobia aren’t anxious in general; they only become so when confronted with the particular thing that causes them terror, whether it’s dogs, the dark, clowns, blood, or loud noises. The fear can be triggered directly, by encountering the thing itself, or a indirectly: hearing a song about it, for instance, or seeing a photo.

Children with specific phobias will anticipate and avoid the thing that triggers their fear, and this avioidance can greatly interfere with normal activities. Though adults and adolescents realize that their fear is unwarranted, children often do not. Specific phobias are more common among girls than boys.

Specific Phobia: What to Look For

A child with a specific phobia will demonstrate unreasonable fear when faced with a particular situation, object, event, or even the thought of encountering the object of her distress. To avoid the thing she fears—dogs, say, or water, or bugs—she may cry or throw a tantrum. Physical symptoms may include trembling, dizziness, and sweating.

Specific Phobia: Risk Factors

Children with a first-degree relative with a particular category of specific phobia (i.e., animals) are at significantly higher risk for that phobia. Other risk factors include temperament (negative affectivity or behavioral inhibition), a traumatic event, and parental over protectiveness, loss, or abuse.

Specific Phobia: Diagnosis

To be diagnosed with specific phobia a child will exhibit exceptional fear of something not normally considered dangerous, and avoiding the object of that fear will cause significant impairment to her ordinary functioning. The fear or anxiety must occur nearly very time the child encounters the stimulus, but the response may vary in intensity, from anticipatory dread to a full-blown panic attack. It’s common to for individuals to have multiple specific phobias, each triggered by a different stimulus.

Specific phobias are commonly classified in five categories: Animal Type, if the phobia concerns animals or insects; Natural Environment Type, if the phobia concerns objects such as storms, heights or water; Blood-Injection-Injury Type, if the phobia concerns receiving an injection or seeing blood or an injury; Situational Type, if the phobia concerns a specific situation like flying, driving, tunnels, bridges, enclosed space or public transportation; and Other Type, if the phobia concerns other stimuli such as loud sounds, costumed characters, choking, or vomiting.

Specific Phobia: Treatment

Treatment for specific phobia focuses on behavioral therapy; medication is not usually prescribed.

Psychotherapeutic: Fortunately, specific phobia is highly treatable through behavior therapy. A typical method involves gradual, repeated exposure to the feared object, event or situation. A child afraid of dogs might start treatment by looking at a picture of a dog, then work up to playing with a stuffed dog, being in the same room with a small dog, and so on. Therapy that teaches strategies for coping with fear and anxious thought patterns is another common option for older children.

Specific Phobia: Risk For Other Disorders

Young people with specific phobias are also frequently diagnosed with other anxiety disorders.