Teen Phobias and Fears: A Guide for Parents

You might know the names of some of the most common teen phobias. Arachnophobia, or the fear of spiders, was made famous by the 1990 comedy movie of the same name. Claustrophobia is the fear of enclosed spaces, and many people say that they have it when they actually just feel uncomfortable in small areas. Your teen might have some fears and phobias that are impacting his or her life. It’s easy to brush off phobias as something to ignore or poke fun at, but it’s important to take them seriously. Here are a few things you should know about teen fears and phobias and how you might help a teen experiencing them.

Fear Is Normal

First, understand that fear is a normal and healthy emotion. A fear of large, barking dogs can keep people safe from a potential attack. Many kids are afraid of bees and wasps, which can help steer them away from being stung. A healthy fear of fire, of trucks barreling down the road, and of lightning can keep people safe.

There are also fears that don’t necessarily keep you safer, but they do make sense. For example, many people feel anxious during airplane turbulence, even if they understand that turbulence does not make planes crash or fall from the sky. People might also be mildly fearful of heights or get nervous before giving a speech in front of a crowd of people. These reactions are normal and not anything to worry about.

Some common fears that teenagers experience include:

  • fears of sickness
  • fear of their parents divorcing
  • fear of not doing well in school
  • fear of disasters like tornadoes or fires
  • fear of experiencing peer pressure or peer rejection

Most of the time, these fears are mild and don’t impact a teen’s everyday life.

What is a Phobia?

Phobia is an extreme or irrational fear of or aversion to some person, place or thing. There are phobias that are typical for teens, those that are associated with adolescence. To make more of a distinction, there are certain fears that tend to naturally develop at certain ages and are also considered normal. For instance, children under two years old may be afraid of loud noises, strangers, or separation from their parents. Toddlers might be afraid of ghosts, monsters, sleeping alone, or strange noises; and adolescents might fear bodily injury, illness, school performance, death, and natural disasters.

Phobias are marked by a consistent fear when faced with an object or particular circumstance. The cause of phobias is not yet determined, though some believe that both genetic and environmental factors contribute to phobias.  Phobias can be present in very young children as well as teens and adolescents. Examples of specific phobias can include fear of animals, air travel, being outside, social situations, blood, or being separated from a loved one. Those afflicted will often react with extreme terror whenever they are faced with a trigger that stimulates their fear, such as being in a certain place or around a certain person or even when in circumstances that are similar to a past situation in which trauma might have occurred.

Symptoms of Phobias

The symptoms of phobias can vary from mild to severe. They can include:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Racing Heart
  • Chest pains
  • Trembling/shaking
  • Feeling lightheaded
  • Hot or cold flashes
  • Sweating
  • Feelings of overwhelm or panic
  • Feeling an intense need to escape
  • Feeling detached from yourself
  • Fear of losing control
  • Feeling like fainting is imminent

Phobias Can Be Crippling

When it comes to phobias, however, the fear can be severe enough that it becomes crippling. While a mild fear of getting sick can encourage your teen to get his or her flu shot and wash hands before eating, a phobia might cause them to refuse to go to school if a classmate comes down with an illness. A fear of lightning might cause your teenager to decide, sensibly, to stay indoors during a storm, while a phobia can cause them to have a panic attack when they see dark clouds approaching.

If a fear becomes so strong that it’s impacting your teen’s life, then it should be addressed. Certain phobias are more likely to get worse if left unchecked. For example, a teen with agoraphobia, or the fear of being in a crowd, can become more and more fearful as time passes without getting used to leaving the house and being in public. A fear of flying can also get worse over time; it might not matter now if you don’t fly much, but your teen could be impacted later if he or she takes a job that requires travel or if they want to go on vacation with friends.

Your Teen Knows It’s Irrational

Most people with a phobia know that it’s irrational. A teen who stays up at night because they are afraid of the house catching fire in the night will not be assured by smoke detectors and by making sure the stove is turned off. He or she will know that the fear does not make sense; rational measures won’t help them feel any better or turn off the fear.

This is one reason why it’s important to take the phobia seriously. You cannot generally talk a teen out of feeling afraid of something that they know isn’t really worth being afraid of. By dismissing a teen’s fears, you could contribute to low self-esteem. A teen with a phobia might also develop general anxiety or depression if they don’t get help.

Common Phobias in Teens

One common phobia that sometimes emerges in adolescence, a time when feeling accepted by their peers is highly important, is social phobia, sometimes diagnosed as Social Anxiety Disorder. It’s an illness in which the fear of social situations, specifically fearing judgment and embarrassment in those situations, is excessive. A teen might be extremely worried about how he or she looks or will behave and might even avoid those situations to escape the anxiety, rather than enjoying that experience. Social phobia tends to also come within an extreme feeling of self-consciousness and a fear of humiliating oneself.

Yet, there are other forms of phobia, such as:

  • Agoraphobia – Fear of Open Spaces
  • Claustrophobia – Fear of Enclosed Spaces
  • Acrophobia – Fear of Heights
  • Zoophobia – Fear of Animals
  • Trypanophobia – Fear of Injections or Medical Needles
  • Nosophobia – Fear of Having a Disease
  • Homophobia – Fear of Homosexuality
  • Monophobia – Fear of Being Alone

If you or someone you know experiences a phobia, contact a mental health professional. By doing so, you can treatment that will make living life with a phobia easier. Those with phobias don’t have to live sheltered lives. There are many forms of treatment for phobias for teens.

Remember, it’s normal to be afraid of these things; what’s not normal or healthy is when a phobia begins to take over everyday life. For example, most people avoid snakes whenever possible and many would get upset if a snake were to get into the house. If your adolescent can’t sleep because they are afraid that there might be a snake lurking under the bed or won’t go into the backyard because there was once a snake slithering through, that is when you know there’s a problem.

Teens are generally past the typical childhood fears of the dark or of monsters. They’re more likely to be afraid of things that could happen (but usually don’t), such as a home invasion or an earthquake. Keep in mind that some fear of these events is normal; it’s only a problem if the fear is impacting your teen to the point that he or she can’t take part in the activities they want to because of the phobia.

How to Help Your Teenager

There are ways to learn to control fear on your own. For example, someone who is afraid of flying but not to the point of having a phobia might simply book a flight and get through it. Facing fears is a good way to take away their power. Also, knowledge can be helpful. If your teen is afraid of something like tornadoes, it might help to do some research on where they are most likely to occur and how you can best protect yourself in the event that one does strike.

If your child is unable to cope with his or her fear, however, it’s time to seek professional help. A counselor can walk your teen through the process of defeating panic attacks and the desensitization process. A teen who is phobic about flying, for example, might need to start by driving past an airport. The next step might be going into the airport and spending a few minutes in the lobby area. The steps are small and they can end with your teen being able to get through a flight during your family vacation.

Knowing the difference between fears and phobias can help you take your teen’s phobias more seriously. Getting past them now can allow your adolescent to enter adulthood unencumbered by the strong feelings that the phobia can elicit, which is a great way to start off his or her grown-up life.