As the parent of a teenager, you’ve undoubtedly soothed your child through various fears throughout the years. It’s normal for toddlers to be afraid of large, barking dogs and for young children to be fearful of bees or of the dark. As your kids got older, their fears changed; your middle-schooler might have gone through a phase where he or she was afraid that you would be hurt in an accident or that someone would break into the house. Once a child reaches their teens, most childhood fears recede. While it’s normal for teens and adults to have some fears (feeling uncomfortable with the thought of public speaking, for example, or a fear of snakes), an irrational and excessive fear that affects daily life is called a phobia. If your teen gets nervous before having to give a report in English class or screams when surprised by a large spider, there’s probably nothing to be concerned about. If a fear is impacting his or her life, however, a phobia might be to blame. Here are five of the most common teen phobias, as well as tips on how to handle a phobia in your or your teen’s life.
1. Social Phobias
A fear of speaking in public, when excessive and intense, can be a type of social phobia. Some teens also have social anxiety, which is a more generalized fear of interaction with other people. Many teens are a bit shy and have low self-confidence; if this progresses, it can turn into a full-blown social phobia. Your teen with a social phobia might be frightened of eating or drinking in front of others, talking on the telephone, using a public restroom, or otherwise being in public and doing regular activities in front of other people.
Agoraphobia is the fear of places that could cause someone to feel trapped or like they can’t escape. It’s not claustrophobia, which is the fear of enclosed places, though agoraphobia can include places like airplanes or enclosed public places. It’s common for those with agoraphobia to be afraid of open places where there are crowds of people that would make it difficult to leave quickly if necessary.
Often, agoraphobia develops after a panic attack. During a panic attack, the victim usually wants to retreat from wherever they are in an effort to calm down and make the panic go away. If someone has had a panic attack, they’re often in fear of having another one, and this causes them to look for a way out of wherever they are. In a crowded place, or one that offers no quick escape (like an airplane or a subway car), he or she can feel extremely stressed. This can lead to someone not leaving the house because they are so afraid that they will end up somewhere where they can’t get away.
3. Fear of Natural Surroundings
Fears of the natural surroundings are common during childhood, and they usually go away as kids learn more about what is causing various phenomena. For example, little ones can be afraid of the dark, water, or thunderstorms. People who do not get over these fears when they are young might develop a phobia of one or more types of natural surroundings. A fear of heights also fits into this category.
Sometimes these teen phobias can’t really be traced to any specific event, but other times, they can. For example, if your family was involved in a tornado or an earthquake, it would not be unreasonable for you or a household member to develop a phobia around these natural occurrences. It’s normal to be fearful during a severe weather event or when one is forecasted, but if your teen is obsessively checking the news or retreating to the cellar often “just in case” a tornado touches down, a phobia might be to blame.
4. Fear of Animals
Similar to the fear of nature, a fear of animals can start in childhood and may or may not be caused by a specific event. Someone who has been bitten by a dog or who had an allergic reaction to a bee sting might develop a phobia to dogs or to bees. Other times, however, the fear is irrational; most people have no reason to be fearful of an attack by birds or that they will be attacked by a bear, but someone with a phobia might dwell on these possibilities. Many people are afraid of spiders, snakes, and insects; if the fear is mild, there’s no need to worry, but if it’s affecting you or your teen’s life, it could be a phobia.
5. Medical Phobias
Being afraid of needles, of doctors, of dentists, or of simply going to have a blood pressure reading or a throat swab is a common phobia. Most people are able to keep it in check enough that they still see professionals when needed. Others, however, cannot. For example, up to 15 percent of the population might avoid seeing the dentist due to severe anxiety and dental phobia. This can lead to extensive tooth decay, the need for a root canal or extraction, and gum disease. When it’s a medical doctor that is avoided, the consequences can be even more dire.
Getting Help for Teen Phobias
No matter what your teenager is afraid of (and there are many teen phobias that do not fit into the above categories), it’s important to remember that he or she is not afraid on purpose. If they could control it, they’d choose not to be afraid. Blaming your teen or ridiculing them for their fear is cruel and can just make things worse. Instead, see a mental health professional who can guide him or her through the process of overcoming the phobia. In many cases, this includes psychotherapy (talk therapy) and desensitization. Sometimes, medication is also needed, either for a little while or for the long term.
Work with your child’s mental health professional to get to the bottom of teen phobias. Having it treated during the teen years can help ensure a healthier and happier adult life. No one wants to be afraid all of the time, so it’s essential to have the phobia identified and treated as soon as feasible.