Editorials for Clinical Practice

CHADIS Co-Director and President, Dr. Barbara Howard is a regular contributor to the Behavioral Consult column of Pediatric News and an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.


Dr. Howard is a developmental-behavioral pediatrician trained by Dr. T. Berry Brazelton at Harvard University. She is a national speaker on child behavior problems and is a past president of the Society for Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. She was a contributing author for Bright Futures™, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Primary Care (DSM-PC) and Bright Futures in Practice: Mental Health and has served on national committees of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Don’t touch that! You’ll get hurt! Fear in childhood.

Fear is an intrinsic reaction evolved to protect us from harm. Unsurprisingly, anxiety disorders are common, affecting as many as 25% of children. On average, children have 2-14 fears typical for thinking at their age, from separation (1 year), animals (6 years), environment (dark or storms), medical intrusions or injury (9 years) to social disgrace (16 years). But about one-fifth of children with typical fear topics qualify as having a disorder; that is, they have impairment in functioning.


I wonder daily in my care of anxious children: Is this amount of fear really inevitable? Are there things we can do to avoid this burden on children?


For everyone, genetics predispose fear of things that are dangerous, such as snakes. (Tell me that they don’t make you startle!) Genetic influences account for about 50% of the variance in significant fearfulness as evidenced by parent-child patterns, and the fact that monozygotic twins are more highly concordant in fearfulness than dizygotic. Not much we can do about that!

So, if evolution armed humans with fear for protection, how is it that everyone is not impaired?

In combination with genetic vulnerabilities, fears are learned in three ways: experiential conditioning, modeling, and threat information transmission. These frequently co-occur because bad things happen, genetically anxious parents show a fear reaction, and the same parents warn their children frequently and expressively about potential dangers.

As for avoiding fear conditioning, all parents want to protect their children from scary experiences, but it is not always possible. Car crashes and other bad things happen. Even viewing events that threaten injury or death, such as 9/11, can be sufficient to induce post-traumatic stress disorder (18% of children in New York City). The closer and more severe a scary event is, the more it injures or has potential to injure the child or the child’s loved ones; the more expressive the family members are and the more it is repeated (abuse, for example), the greater the likelihood of it lasting and having impairing effects.

Conditioned fears from real experiences are not entirely random. Low-income children are more likely to experience frightening events from rat bites to house fires to domestic violence to gunshots. Asking about environmental factors or using screening tools such as Safe Environment for Every Kid to evaluate the home environment, and referring families for assistance are steps relevant to every child, but especially anxious ones.

You and I need to continue to advocate for safer communities for all children. In the meantime, it is important to know that encouraging a child to describe in detail to a caring adult – verbally and/or by drawing – traumas they experienced is significantly therapeutic. It might not seem intuitive to parents to promote “reliving the experience,” especially because they may have been traumatized themselves. So providing this opportunity ourselves or through a friend, teacher, or counselor who can calmly answer questions and put the event in perspective, is important advice.

But even simply viewing disasters, violence, or artificial frightening events on television or film can produce lasting fears. While inherently anxious children are more vulnerable to fears induced by media, 90% of undergraduates report at least one enduring fear that started this way, and 26% report persistence to the present. At least one-third of youth have fear reactions to media. Simply the number of hours watching television is associated with a child’s increased perception of personal vulnerability. While 8- to 10-year-olds had reduced fear when parents explained news events, more realistic and serious coverage (the Iraq War, for example) and older age predicted more severe fear reactions not similarly reassured. With this high prevalence of anxiety, I encourage parents to avoid media whose content is not known to them for all children, but especially for those already anxious or traumatized. It amazes me how many families of anxious children have the Weather Channel on constantly, showing devastation all over the world, oblivious that the child is internalizing the risk as though it was outside their window! When media trauma exposure can’t be avoided, parents need to show calm and provide an explanation to the child to put it in perspective, as we saw the father do on TV after the Paris massacre.

Modeling of fearful reactions is the second powerful influence on the development of fears. How caregivers react when they encounter a situation such as an approaching dog is quickly modeled by the child. This vicarious learning by watching others’ reactions evolved as preferable to having to change it yourself. Mothers’ voices and actions are especially salient to children, compared with fathers’ voices and actions. Unfortunately, females tend to be both more fearful and more expressive of fear than males. Some approaches you can suggest regarding modeling include coaching parents (sometimes even sitters) to dampen or mask their reactions, provide other adults without a similar fear to model for the child, or at least not tell the child why they are walking a different route to avoid a dog!

How information about threats is transmitted is the third and perhaps most modifiable influence on a child’s development of fears. Parents talk to children constantly, and a lot of it is warnings! This too may be genetic/cultural as evidenced by the 41% of nursery rhymes across cultures that include violence! Children who have been told potentially bad things about an animal, person, or event show a stronger fear response as measured by self-report, physiological reaction, and behavioral avoidance than when not primed. Conversely, children told positive things to react with less fear immediately and are less likely to learn a fear response at later exposures. Once fear has been promoted by negative information, the child’s actual ways of thinking (cognitive biases) are shifted. Attention to forewarned stimuli is increased, the use of reasoning is limited to verifying that fear was warranted rather than alternatively looking for evidence against it, and overestimation of the likelihood of bad outcomes occurs. Children with an overly aroused brain behavioral inhibition system (inherent tendency to react to novelty with physiological arousal and fear) are more influenced by negative verbal information to have fear, cognitive distortions, and avoidance.

Not surprisingly, anxious parents give more negative information, particularly about ambiguous situations, than other parents. Children living in homes with more negative interactions with fathers or more punitive or neglectful mothers also are more susceptible to increased fears from verbal threat information. Unfortunately, parents generally do not perceive their own role in transmitting threat information. In contrast, one-quarter to one-third of children with significant fears relate onset or intensification of their fears to things they heard. While possibly not relevant for innate fears such as of spiders, this is important information for prevention of fears in general. A child’s development of excessive fear can be somewhat dampened by adult verbal explanations, a focus on the positives, and reassurance, especially if this is done routinely.

The “30 Million Word Gap”2 in total word exposure before age 3 years of children in families on welfare vs. professionals found that higher-income parents provided far more words of praise and six encouragements for every discouragement vs.more total negative vocabulary and two discouragements for every encouragement. The same children more likely to be exposed to trauma also may have less positive preparation to reduce their development of significant fears with the associated stress effects. You and I see this during visits – take the opportunity to discuss and model an alternative.

1. Clin Child Fam Psychol Rev. 2010 Jun;13(2):129-50.
2. “The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3” (Washington: American Educator, Spring 2003).


Dr. Howard’s contribution to this publication is as a paid expert to Frontline Medical

Communications. E-mail her at pdnews@frontlinemedcom.com.