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Study: Children’s Fears Are Learned

by The Kid's Doctor Staff

Children are not born with a dread of snakes or spiders but learn these fears very quickly, a new study suggests.

In one experiment from the study, the researchers showed two videos side by side to children as young as 7 months. One video showed a snake and the other showed something non-threatening, such as an elephant. At the same time, the infants heard a recording of either a happy or fearful voice.

The infants spent more time looking at the snake video when they heard a fearful voice, the researchers reported, but the children showed no sign of fear themselves.

In another experiment, 3-year-olds were shown a screen of nine photographs and asked to select a target item. The children identified snakes more quickly than flowers and more quickly than other animals that look similar to snakes, such as frogs and caterpillars.

Children who were afraid of snakes identified snakes just as quickly as did children who did not have that fear.

“What we’re suggesting is that we have these biases to detect things like snakes and spiders really quickly, and to associate them with things that are yucky or bad, like a fearful voice,” researcher Vanessa LoBue, of Rutgers University, said in a news release from the Association for Psychological Science. The study is published in the association’s journal, Current Directions in Psychological Science.

Earlier research, LoBue said, showed that adults quickly recognize the difference between scary and not-so-scary creatures. The new study confirmed that children do the same, but that it’s a learned, not innate, response, she said.

What is child anxiety?

All humans experience anxiety, it serves as a means of protection and can often enhance our performance in stressful situations. Children who are able to experience the slight rush of anxiety that often occurs prior to a math test or a big track race often can enhance their performance. However, experiencing too much anxiety or general nervousness, at inappropriate times, can be extremely distressing and interfering. Although children have fears of specific objects, the feeling of anxiety is more general…children may feel constantly “keyed up” or extremely alert. Given the wide range of tasks children must accomplish throughout their childhood, it is important to be sure that their level of anxiety does not begin to interfere with their ability to function. If it does, it is important that they begin to learn some skills for coping more efficiently with their anxious feelings.

What are fears and phobias?

Children’s fears are often natural, and arise at specific times in their development. Children may develop fears from a traumatic experience (e.g. traumatic dog attack), but for some children, there is no clear event that causes the fear to arise. Some children become fearful simply by watching another child acting scared. Some children may refuse to sleep alone due to fears of creatures in their closet, while other children report feeling afraid of the dark. Children’s fears are often associated with avoidance, discomfort, and physical complaints, such as rapid heart beat, stomach distress, sweaty palms, or trembling. Researchers have found certain fears arise at specific ages in all children, and these fears tend to disappear naturally with time, as the child grows older. When children’s fears persist beyond the age when they are appropriate, and begin to interfere with their daily functioning, they are called phobias. Typically, children who are experiencing a phobia should be referred for treatment by a psychologist.

Which of my child’s fears are normal? Most children, when asked, are able to report having several fears at any given age. Some research shows that 90% of children between the ages of 2-14 have at least one specific fear. If your child’s fear is not interfering with his/her daily life (e.g., sleep, school performance, social activities) , or your family’s life, then most likely you will not need to bring your child to a psychologist for help. Here are a list of fears that are found to be VERY COMMON for children at specific ages:

INFANTS/TODDLERS (ages 0-2 years) loud noises, strangers, separation from parents, large objects

PRESCHOOLERS (3-6 years) imaginary figures (e.g., ghosts, monsters, supernatural beings, the dark, noises, sleeping alone, thunder, floods)

SCHOOL AGED CHILDREN/ADOLESCENTS (7-16 years) more realistic fears (e.g., physical injury, health, school performance, death, thunderstorms, earthquakes, floods.

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One Response to “Study: Children’s Fears Are Learned”

  1. Diana says:

    My daughter is 6 years old and has fears of every kind. Cats, dogs (even though I had 14 animals at one time dogs included) weather, people, etc. I have to be in view all the time or she panics yelling for me. She doesn’t want people looking at her either. It causes her great anxiety. ( They dont like me, they think I’m stupid! ,why are they looking at me? )I hope these fears go away with age meanwhile I am trying to make light of the fears and tell her it’s ok. My 1yr old daughter is afraid of nothing. They are night and day!

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