What You Need to Know About Teen Phobias
Phobias, or irrational fears, are relatively common disorders. About 9 percent of children and teens experience some type of phobia. Most phobias start in childhood or adolescence, and continue into adulthood. Thus, an estimated 19 million Americans suffer from phobias.
A phobia is an extreme, irrational fear of or aversion to something. Usually, the source of the fear poses little or no actual danger. Phobias are classified as anxiety disorders.
Many children and teens suffer from anxiety and fears. However, the difference between a “normal” fear and a phobia is the degree of anxiety involved. Children or teenagers with phobias experience extreme dread and terror when exposed to the object of their anxiety.
Furthermore, the length of time that a child or teen experiences this anxiety indicates whether it is a phobia or not. If they have a phobia, they typically experience a high level of fear for six months or more.
Therefore, teenage fears and phobias can disrupt daily life, including school, work, and social activities.
Teen Phobia Symptoms
Symptoms of a phobia are similar to those of a panic attack. Moreover, people with phobias are unable to control their feelings. This is true even when they understand that the reaction is irrational. Simply thinking about the feared object or experience can cause anxiety. Furthermore, it can cause a phobic reaction. Thus, they will do everything they can to avoid the trigger.
Additionally, phobias are associated with a number of uncomfortable physical symptoms. Common phobia symptoms include the following:
- Feeling nauseous or faint
- Sweating, nervous shaking, and blushing
- Sensation of choking and shortness of breath
- Chills or hot flashes
- Chest pain or tightness
- Increased heart rate
- Confusion and disorientation.
Typically, a phobia focuses on a particular situation or experience, living creature (animal or insect), place, natural force (such as thunderstorms), or object. This type of phobia is known as a specific phobia. Just over 15 percent of teens ages 13 to 18 experience specific phobias, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
A complete list of phobias and fears would be quite extensive. The most common phobias include:
- Arachnophobia—fear of spiders
- Claustrophobia—fear of enclosed spaces
- Acrophobia—fear of heights
- Mysophobia—fear of germs
- Hypochondria—fear of becoming ill
- Necrophobia or thanatophobia—fear of death
- Ophidiophobia—fear of snakes
- Cynophobia—fear of dogs
- Aquaphobia—fear of water
- Aerophobia—fear of flying
- Medical phobia—fear of doctors, injections, hospitals, and/or medical procedures
- Agoraphobia—fear of open places or fear of leaving the house.
Less Common Phobias
Furthermore, people also have specific phobias that can be categorized as uncommon fears. A comprehensive list would include more obscure types of phobias, such as:
- Pogonophobia—fear of beards
- Omphalophobia—fear of the navel
- Ailurophobia—fear of cats
- Metathesiophobia—fear of change
- Emetophobia—fear of vomiting
- Scoleciphobia—fear of worms
- Ombrophobia—fear of rain.
This is just a small sample of the many specific phobias that people experience.
Teen Social Anxiety
Often referred to as social phobia, social anxiety disorder is an intense feeling of anxiety when interacting with other people. Anthropophobia, or fear of people, is another name for social anxiety disorder.
People with social phobia experience an overwhelming fear and worry in social settings. In fact, this anxiety is often a sense of dread or doom about impending social situations.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), social anxiety affects 5.5 percent of teens ages 13 to 18. Specifically, the typical age of onset is 13 years old.
Social anxiety disorder is not the same as being shy. In fact, a team of NIMH researchers studied the overlap between shyness and social phobia. Subsequently, they found that only 12 percent of shy children in the study met the criteria for social phobia. Thus, social anxiety affects only a small fraction of people who think of themselves as shy.
Symptoms of Social Anxiety
A person with a social phobia has a fear of people judging them; thus, they often withdraw themselves into isolation and display avoidance behaviors. Thus, they often withdraw into a shell of isolation and avoidance behaviors. Additionally, teens with social anxiety feel excessive self-consciousness. Furthermore, they feel extreme concern about being humiliated or rejected. Consequently, severe social anxiety can be paralyzing for teenagers in school, at social events, and at family gatherings.
Teens with social anxiety might fear going out to eat at a restaurant, using a public restroom when other people are there, and talking on the phone. Moreover, they fear having to talk or perform in front of a group. Thus, they are fearful of asking questions in class or acting in a school play.
Furthermore, teens with social anxiety also experience all the physical symptoms associated with phobias.
Thus, social anxiety symptoms negatively impact a teen’s experience with peers and in many other relationships and situations.
What Causes Phobias?
Experts do not entirely understand the causes of specific phobias. However, they have identified a number of factors that may contribute to the development of phobias.
- Neurobiology: Children and teens are more susceptible to phobias and other anxiety disorders when their brain chemicals are out of balance. Specifically, the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine are involved in anxiety. In addition, researchers have found that some people with phobias have an overactive amygdala. The amygdala is the part of the brain that triggers the release of stress hormones.
- Inherited factors: Scientists have not found a gene or genes associated with specific phobias. However, parents can pass down a tendency toward anxiety and fear to their children. This is similar to how they pass down physical traits. Furthermore, children “learn” to be anxious about something when they observe a parent showing anxiety about it.
- Environment: Phobias and other anxiety disorders are sometimes triggered by traumatic experiences. A divorce, illness, or death in the family can trigger a phobia. Moreover, major life events, such as moving or starting a new school, can also trigger an anxiety disorder.
- Climate: Furthermore, researchers have discovered that countries with warmer climates have lower rates of social anxiety disorder. The culture in these countries might be responsible for this difference. In addition, there is often increased social contact in warmer climates. Consequently, people develop social skills more easily.
- Evolutionary factors: Researchers believe that some phobias are the result of an inborn self-protection mechanism. One study found that babies’ pupils became larger in size when they looked at pictures of spiders and snakes, as compared to pictures of fish and flowers. Dilation of the pupils is linked to a stress reaction.
Risk Factors for Phobias
As well as possible causes of phobias, certain factors increase the likelihood of a phobia developing. These include:
- Age—specific phobias usually begin in childhood
- Temperament—children who are particularly sensitive might be more susceptible to phobias
- Scary experiences—a phobia can be triggered by exposure to a frightening event, animal or object
- Simply hearing about or watching this type of frightening event (such as seeing an airplane crash on television) can lead to the development of a specific phobia.
Risk Factors for Social Anxiety
Additionally, specific risk factors for social anxiety include the following:
- Gender—females are more likely to suffer from social phobia
- Family—siblings or children of people with social anxiety are at greater risk
- Negative social experiences—including bullying, humiliation, or rejection
- Underdeveloped social skills—uncomfortable experiences talking with others can progress into social anxiety disorder
- Personality type—withdrawn, shy, or timid children may be more likely to develop social anxiety
- A bad experience with public speaking—a difficult experience in front of others, such as in a play, presentation, or speech, can trigger a social phobia.
Do You Have a Phobia?
Experts typically make a phobia diagnosis when a person has experienced an extreme fear for more than six months. In addition, a mental health professional will assess whether the fear disrupts a person’s daily life and relationships.
A social phobia test for a child or teen takes into account whether the social anxiety prevents the formation of friendships. Moreover, if the anxiety impacts their ability to function in school and negatively affects their family relationships, it is likely a social phobia.
As with other phobias, experts recommend treatment for social anxiety disorder if symptoms persist for more than six months.
Negative Consequences of Phobias
Along with anxiety and discomfort, phobias can lead to other negative consequences.
Depression and other types of anxiety disorders: These diagnoses are sometimes linked with phobias in both teens and adults.
Social problems: Phobias can disturb normal social relationships for children, teens, and adults. Consequently, people with phobias may suffer from loneliness and feelings of isolation.
Achievement issues: People with social anxiety disorder sometimes drop out of school or stop working in order to avoid the stress associated with social interactions.
Suicide: Individuals with severe and painful phobias may be at risk of suicide.
Substance use disorder: Teens and adults might try to cope with the discomfort and stress of phobias by self-medicating with drugs and/or alcohol.
Treatment for Phobias
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can effectively treat phobias. Specifically, CBT helps people learn to understand their anxiety and their phobic reactions. Moreover, they learn better ways to cope with the phobia and its symptoms.
Furthermore, CBT groups can give people with social anxiety a chance to practice talking and interacting with others. Support groups for phobias are also helpful.
In exposure therapy, also known as desensitization therapy, a person is gradually exposed to the source of their fear in escalating steps. Eventually, the client is exposed to the feared experience or object.
For example, someone with a fear of flying will begin by thinking about flying. Subsequently, they will go to an airport, sit in a simulated airplane cabin, and finally board a plane.
Additionally, in the early stages of therapy, pharmaceutical medications can help people with phobias. Doctors sometimes prescribe beta blockers, anti-anxiety medication, or antidepressants for phobias.
There Is Hope—and Help
In conclusion, parents should know that phobias are treatable. Parents whose children suffer from phobias should never be afraid to reach out for expert assessment and advice.
With any mental health condition, it’s always best to get information and help early on. Therefore, children and teens have a better opportunity to overcome their anxiety and to flourish free of fear.
Front Psychol. 2017 Oct 18;8:1710.
Pediatrics. 2011 Nov; 128(5): 917–925.
National Institute of Mental Health
Anxiety and Depression Association of America