Things that Go Bump in the Night: Understanding Worries and Fears

Tis the season for all things spooky, creepy, crawly and fierce!  While this can be good fun during festive fall events, some fears and phobias bring no such giggles or good feelings.  It can be worrisome as a parent, and/or bothersome as a human, to experience anxieties, fears or phobias, especially if they are judged as illogical.  Today’s blog offers some insight as to where these anxious feelings come from and some developmental guidelines for how to help.

Across the lifespan, the development of fears and phobias can be developmentally appropriate.  By 8 to 12 months of life, many infants are able to identify fearful faces on others and understand it as a sign of danger.  Around age 3, children can imagine and pretend but can’t always distinguish between reality and fantasy.  Between ages 7 and 11, children can rationalize logic better but remain concrete in their thinking.  While they understand the monster under their bed isn’t real, they begin to fear real events.  In pre-adolescence we gain abstract thought, as well as deductive and inductive reasoning, which also means we are more vulnerable to the real possibilities of the world.  These developmental milestones alongside genetic vulnerability to anxiety, fearful modeling by those around us, and/or personal experiences that leave us fearful of specific scenarios or stimuli may create some potentially significant fears and phobias.  What can we do to help our young humans and ourselves navigate these experiences in a healthy and effective way?  Let’s start by breaking guidance into age groups to better tailor our response:

Childhood:  When a young person first shares a fear either through language or behavior, an important first step is labeling and validating their feelings – humans don’t overcome anxieties simply by being told their fear is silly.  When we say, “you look scared, it’s okay to feel that way,” we may lessen some arousal simply by providing a safe space for their experience.

Next, probe the child’s feelings a bit and offer factual answers to their questions without expounding with too many details. Their thought process at this age may allow them to understand what they should fear but they cannot understand others’ perspectives yet, so trying to talk them into your belief system may prove difficult.  

Develop predictable routines for situations where they will have to face their fears.  Don’t avoid these situations, rather prepare yourself and the child with coping strategies to use when they become fearful.  Encourage/support them in slowly facing their fears but be careful not to force them into a situation where they may be flooded with emotion.  Offer support and safety but don’t encourage escape.

Middle-Childhood to Adolescence:  Across these developmental stages, hormones contribute to changes in thought and increased awareness of the world around them.  When young people attempt to process things they don’t understand, they create (or rework) cognitive schemas, sometimes filling in the gaps in their knowledge using hunches, assumptions or hearsay.   Many times this leads to overestimating the likelihood of something bad happening.  So how do we help?  

During middle-childhood years we want to help our youngsters distinguish between fact and fiction.  We can help dispel these self-created myths by encouraging them to learn more about their feared concepts.  For example: hurricanes are scary natural disasters, investigating how often they occur in the state/city/town of residence may help lessen fear of them.  In adolescence, we can use the momentum of developing independence by encouraging our teens to problem solve how to help themselves.  What can they do to protect themselves, their family/friends and community?  Focusing on discrete preventative action steps teens can engage in may help.

Adulthood:  In adulthood it’s important to first explore coping strategies and see what helps calm your body when fearful.  A simple search for Progressive Muscle Relaxation, Grounding, or Mindfulness tools can be a good place to start.  Once you feel better prepared to self-soothe, start exposing yourself to small doses or examples of the thing you fear.  Reward yourself for “successive approximations” or small steps towards facing your fears.  As you habituate, or grow more comfortable facing small reminders of your fears, you can move on to bigger cues.

With all things it is important to recognize when a more intense level of support may be needed to help navigate through fears and phobias.  Avoidance of the thing you fear to the point of negative impact on daily life including missing school/work or social events, difficulties driving, sleeping or eating are signs that support is needed.  Regression to younger childhood behaviors, worrisome changes to behavior, emotional lability (crying for no apparent reason) and/or nightmares are also red flags.  Finally, if you see these fears or phobias lasting longer than you think they should or not improving with your own intervention, seek support.  Ghosts, Ghouls and Goblins may be fun during the Harvest season, but you have a right to live comfortably in your everyday life and don’t have to pursue improvement alone.


Michelle McDonald, Ph.D.

Licensed Clinical Psychologist