Here’s what you need to know to quash fright—in you and your brood.

By Jennifer Lindley
Updated May 29, 2013
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Illustration of child surrounded by phobias
Credit: Dan Hipp

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, “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?

Bravery 101

Correct misinformation. Often our fears are born of misunderstanding. “I love working with kids who are afraid of bees,” says Chansky, who is also the author of Freeing Your Child From Anxiety ($15, “We call out to a bee from the window, and the child learns that the bee doesn’t care about him—he cares about pollen.” Similarly, a youngster’s anxiety about the dentist can be assuaged by watching a (prescreened!) YouTube video of a dental exam, and you can reduce your own fear of flying by studying facts and figures. (Did you know that, statistically, you would have to fly every day for 63,000 years before you would die in a plane crash?)

Have a plan. “I dislike bugs a lot,” confesses Chansky. “But we live in the woods. So I keep yogurt containers around the house and use them to catch insects when they come in. Being prepared helps me stay calm.” If kids are around, Chansky suggests “bossing back” feared objects, saying, “I’m a lot bigger than you, Mr. Bug!” (This may help even if you’re alone—a little fake-it-till-you-make-it never hurts.) But what if you wind up screaming and jumping onto a chair? Don’t consider it defeat, says Chansky. Just take a deep breath and say to the kids (or yourself), “False alarm! I guess my worry brain took over!”

With scared kids, be sympathetic, not overly emotional… As a pediatrician, Roy Benaroch of Alpharetta, Georgia, has noticed that parents’ attitudes influence their children’s apprehension when it comes to shots. His advice: Don’t apologize (“I’m sorry we have to do this to you!”) or overempathize (“I know! It hurts! It hurts!”). Rather, adopt a calm, loving tone and say, “It will be OK, and it will be over in a few minutes.” And remember: Kids can tell when a parent is white-knuckling his or her way through a situation. So if Dad has a problem with shots, Mom should chaperone inoculation day. If you must grin and bear it, try taking three deep breaths or counting backward from 10—or both—to ease your anxiety, says psychologist Dawn Huebner, the author of What to Do When You Worry Too Much ($16, “Relaxation methods work best when decided on and practiced ahead of time,” she says.

…And don’t encourage avoidance. If your child loses her cool around dogs, your instinct may be to hustle her across the street when you spot one. But resist that urge. Take it as an opportunity to demystify the source of her fears, Pincus advises. Say, “Look at that puppy! Should we go see if the owner will let us feel how soft his fur is?”

Create a “bravery ladder.” For children and adults who are truly phobic, the gold standard of treatment is exposure therapy, in which a mental-health provider introduces the sufferer to the thing that he fears in small, confidence-building steps until he’s no longer afraid. You can try the system out on your own, too. Pincus recommends brainstorming 8 or 10 challenges of increasing difficulty. If you or your child is terrified of mice, for example, you would start by looking at photographs of rodents in a book; next, peer at them at a distance in a pet store; then eventually hold one. If you’re paralyzed by heights, you would start with a brief visit to a second-floor balcony. Remember that it’s fine to feel a little fear with each new task. “That’s what gets you better,” says Pincus. “You learn that you can approach a situation when you’re nervous, because those feelings won’t hurt you.”

If your scared child shows signs of real distress (refusing to go to school, having nightmares, clinging), or if you can’t bring yourself to face your own phobias, enlist help from a professional. (Ask whether the therapist is trained in cognitive behavioral therapy for anxiety or phobias before booking an appointment.) “Getting assistance models to your children that sometimes grown-ups aren’t perfect,” says Pincus. “It shows them that even adults need help.”