Spiders. Shots. Clowns with supersized shoes. Many of us harbor a lurking (and probably irrational) fear of something very specific, and often the terror first grips us in childhood. “About 90 percent of kids can identify having at least one and sometimes several different fears,” says Donna Pincus, Ph.D., a psychologist and the director of the Child and Adolescent Fear and Anxiety Treatment Program at Boston University. Most are mild and quickly outgrown. (Did you have to inspect the closet for monsters last night?) But others stay with us through adulthood—and can even interfere with daily life. A recent Gallup poll found that snakes top the list of things that most terrify adults, beating out public speaking and flying. And a study presented at the Sleep 2012 conference suggests that some cases of insomnia in adults may be linked to a fear of the dark (see more common phobias). But don’t worry: If your fears are holding you hostage—or if your kids are scaredy-cats—there are ways to loosen the grip of those stubborn terrors.
The Root of Fear
“It’s very easy for us to accept other emotions. We get sad sometimes, we get happy,” notes Pincus, who is also the author of Growing Up Brave ($26, amazon.com). “But as soon as we say we are afraid, all of a sudden everyone wants us to relax.” In fact, she says, fear is a protective emotion. As kids, we’re hardwired to be afraid of certain things at various stages of development for the sake of our own safety. Babies cry at loud noises and, once they understand how crucial Mom is, strangers. When we’re older, we fear natural dangers in the wider world, like the dark, storms, and animals, because that’s what we’re programmed to do.
While fear may be a predictable part of development, some of us are more prone to it than others. “We know that fears and anxiety tend to run in families,” says Pincus. “But you don’t inherit a specific phobia. If your dad has a fear of storms, you won’t necessarily have it, too. But he may pass down a vulnerability to anxiety.” A fearful parent may also model Nervous Nellie behavior. “If Mom sees a bug and shrieks, the child observing might suddenly start feeling afraid of bugs, too,” says Pincus. And one study suggests that dads may exert an even greater influence. A recent report published in the International Journal of Paediatric Dentistry found that a father’s dental fears were a key predictor of how greatly his children dreaded the dentist. In other words, Mom is just a worrywart—but if Dad is afraid, there must really be something to stew over.
Most of us eventually outgrow childhood fears through a process called mastery—a kind of trial-and-error experimentation that happens with gradual exposure, says Tamar Chansky, Ph.D., a psychologist and the founder of the Children’s and Adult Center for OCD and Anxiety, in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania. After living through years of storms, for instance, a kid comes to understand that every cloud isn’t a sign that her house will soon land in Oz. But once in a while, a fear gets stuck, as you know if you make your spouse haul the holiday decorations up to the cobweb-filled attic without you. So how can you vanquish that fear—and avoid passing it down to your kids?