Phobias and Fears in Children – Powerful Strategies To Try

Phobias and Fears in Children - 5 Powerful Strategies For Parents To Try

Phobias happen when tame, harmless things turn into bullies. They take on a power they don’t deserve, in ways that often don’t make sense. The fear is real and persuasive, and for kids, they can be particularly debilitating. The good news is that phobias and fears in children are very manageable, and with the right guidance and strategies, kids can be empowered to move straight through the middle of the intense fears that get in their way.

What causes intense fears or phobias?

Often (but not always) when there are specific phobias or fears in children, there will be a starting point – something that happened that first made the fear come to life. It might be something that happened to the person, to someone else, or something that was heard about in a story, a movie or in the news. A fear of dogs for example, could have its beginnings in an actual scary encounter with a dog, hearing about someone being traumatised by a dog, or seeing a news story or a movie about a dog attack. That event is then generalised from something that happened because of one gnarly dog, to something that could happen with any dog. All dogs are then avoided in order to avoid the frightening feelings that is associated with them.

With a phobia, being in the presence of the feared thing will bring on a fight or flight reaction that is so strong as to send parts of the brain ‘offline’. This is because the brain believes so strongly in the threat, that it makes way for the person to act automatically, on raw instinct, without the intrusion of the part of the brain that would prefer to take time to analyse the situation and come up with a different plan. 

The avoidance that comes with phobias aren’t so much about avoiding the feared thing, but about avoiding the intense feelings that come with it. These feelings are connected to the fight or flight response, a physiological response that involves the release of neurochemicals to get the body ready to fight for its life or run for it. When the body doesn’t fight or flee, there is nothing to burn the neurochemicals. They build up and bring intense emotion and physical sensations (such as a racy heart, sick tummy, clammy hands) that feel awful. 

The once-harmless thing (the trigger) becomes the warning alarm that ‘bad feelings are found here’, and it drives avoidance, or ‘fear of the fear’. The trigger and the feelings become wrapped up in one scary bundle.

Avoidance is an adaptive, obvious solution, but it also comes with its own problems. 

The problem with avoidance.

When children show overwhelming fear or anxiety, it is completely understandable that loving parent would want to protect them from those bad feelings. Sometimes, whether through exhaustion or a lack of options, it can feel as though the only way to soothe their distress is to support the avoidance. This can lead to short-term relief for everyone (which sometimes is desperately needed!) but avoidance has a sneaky way of making things worse in the long run and keeping the anxiety well-fed. 

Avoidance takes away the opportunity for kids to learn that whatever is worrying them most likely won’t happen at all, and that if it does, they are resilient, strong and resourceful enough to cope. There is no opportunity to learn that fear is a warning, not a prediction. What kids learn instead is that the best way to deal with an unusual or confronting situation is to avoid it. The more something is avoided, the more that avoidance is confirmed as the only way to stay safe. Sometimes avoidance will be a sensible option, and sometimes it will interrupt their reach into the world.

Our brains are always changing to be the best possible brain for us. It does this through experience. When an experience is repeated, the brain strengthens the corresponding connections. It will change itself according to what it thinks we need, and it will base this around the behaviours we repeat. If avoidance is a repeated response, the brain will shape itself to support this. The good news is that as much as the brain changes itself passively, without any deliberate effort from us, by actively exposing the brain to certain experiences, we can also change it in ways that are more in line with what we need. It’s called experience-dependent neuroplasticity and it happens in all of us – kids too. Here’s how to help them with that.

Phobias and Fears in Children – What to do.

In the midst of high anxiety, the part of the brain that can rationalise and use logic and facts to feel safe is offline. For this reason, the best time to work with a fear or phobia is during times of calm. This is when all of the parts of the brain will be relaxed and receptive to any information you present, and more open to trying something different. Here’s how to do that:

  1. Fill in the missing pieces with plenty of information.

    Younger kids are still establishing how the world works. They’re finding their way around cause and effect – that the effect follows the cause isn’t as obvious to newbies. It might be obvious to you that playing near a vacuum clear doesn’t mean you’ll disappear into the end of it when it gets too close, but for a little person, it’s not so obvious. Show them how it works. A button will fit into the end of a vacuum, but a shoe won’t, nor will a foot, a chair, a car, or a person. Even for older kids – for anyone – the more they know (stats, facts), the less they’ll worry. If they are scared of storms, talk to them about where thunder and lightning come from. Give them as much information as they need to feel safe. 

  2. Be careful not to overreact.

    Validate what your child is feeling, but be careful not to overreact to the fear. If you scoop your child up every time he or she becomes scared, you might inadvertently communicate that there is something to be scared of. It might also communicate that the only way to feel safe is in your arms. In your arms will always be their favourite place to be, but let the cuddle be a reward for brave behaviour, not an inadvertent one for avoidant behaviour. Rather than over-comforting, gently talk to them about what you see, ‘That balloon scared you when it popped didn’t it.’

  3. ‘You can only work what’s happening now, but your ability to do that is powerful.’

    Phobias are a curly combination of the past (‘I know dogs are scary because one has scared me before’) and the future (‘what if the dog bites/the balloon pops/a monster comes out when you turn off the light.’) Bring your child back to now. This is particularly important to deal with the generalisation from one frightening event, to all similar ones. Talk about the differences between this event and the one that scared them. 

  4. Rework the association.

    The problem with intense fears is that they become associated with intense feelings and memories – bad ones. Rework this association by pairing something fun or relaxing with whatever it is that’s causing the trouble. An example of where this might come in handy is for children who have an intense fear of thunderstorms. During a thunderstorm, if your little person is scared, acknowledge this and let them know that it’s normal. Catch the feeling first (they need to know you’re taking them seriously), then redirect – encourage him or her to watch a funny movie with you, or to colour in while listening to relaxing music, even if it’s through headphones. Eventually, when they’re ready, you can try working up to a game – every time there’s lightning, someone has to tell a funny joke (have plenty ready) and everyone eats M&M’s until the thunder cracks – or something. Anything that takes their focus away from their scary thoughts or memories or feelings and replaces it with something positive will help to dilute the negative associations.

  5. Storytelling.

    Even though fears and phobias seem irrational, there will often be a very rational story that gave them life in the first place. The generalisation to other similar triggers (‘all dogs are scary’/ ‘all thunder means danger’) often happens automatically and without awareness. Telling the story of that initial event can interrupt this.

    We humans have been telling our stories for thousands of years. It’s how we heal and it’s how we connect. With our knowledge of the brain ever-expanding, we now have insight into why storytelling is such a fundamental part of being human. It brings meaning to our experience and soothes our strong emotional and physical reactions.

    This happens on a brain level. Memories and emotions live in the right brain, but the logical rational factual detail of the world lives in the left. We need both sides of the brain to work together, and when a response seems ‘out of fit’ to a situation, it’s a fairly clear sign that the right brain may have taken over and disconnected from the left. Storytelling reconnects the left and the right side of the brain, helping to make sense of overwhelming emotions and memories.

    The dominance of the right brain during times of intense fear is automatic. The reintroduction of the left brain will have to be done deliberately. Encouraging a child to tell their own story of the first time they remember feeling the specific fear can be a powerful strategy. Without left brain logic, the automatic response becomes, ‘All dogs can hurt people because they can all bite. I know because I’ve seen it/heard about it/had it happen to me.’ Eventually, with left brain logic and facts involved, the response will shape towards, ‘this dog is okay because my parents have said that it’s a friendly dog. It’s sitting calmly and I can see other people patting it. It’s different to the dog that scared me because it is a different colour and it’s smaller and it’s ears are bigger.’ 

    Gently start them off, but if they don’t want to talk respect that. Try, ‘Can you tell me about the first time a dog scared you?’ If they are old enough, encourage them to write about it. Let the words and ideas flow. Encourage them to name the feelings they experienced, or the feelings that come up for them when they tell their story or when they are in a similar situation now (such as when they see a dog). Name what you see as they speak. ‘You look scared when you talk about that.’ Research from the Yale Centre of Emotional Intelligence has found that when an emotion is named, the intense emotional circuitry in the right brain is soothed and tamed. This happens regardless of age.

    There is often the concern that by talking about the experience, it will make things worse, but given what we know about the brain this just isn’t the way it is. We know this intuitively. When something happens, we are often driven to find somebody close to us to talk about it. If the experience isn’t talked about, the brain will be driven to find other ways to make sense of things. Phobias are one of the ways this can happen. It can also happen by way of dreams. During dreams, the brain ‘replays’ information connected to unresolved issues, to try to sort through and find meaning and closure. 

  6. The Stepladder.  

    This technique is commonly used in therapy as a way to gently expose kids to the feared situation or object so they can become less sensitive to it and learn a different response. With a phobia, the feared object feels overwhelming and completely unapproachable. Step by gentle step, gradual exposure helps to build familiarity and confidence, so your child can feel more empowered and less helpless in the face of their fear.  It is critical that this is done gently, and that your child is not pushed to go further than they feel they are able to. Here’s how:

•  Get them on board with the plan.

Getting your child on board with the plan is critical – they need to be the hero in this story. They also need to be assured that they will have full control, and that you won’t be asking them to do anything unsafe.

 ‘I know that you’re really scared of dogs and I understand why. Some dogs are scary, but most of them aren’t. At the moment your brain is telling you that every dog you see is probably going to hurt you. That must be really frightening for you. It’s not your brain’s fault, it’s just trying to keep you safe. It’s kind of taken over though, and what we need to do is to make you the boss of your brain again. We can do that and I want to talk to you about a plan that we’re going to do together – as a team.

We’re not going to do anything you don’t want to do, and we’re definitely not going to do anything that could hurt you, but for this to work, you will need to do some brave things – but the decision will always be yours. The plan will have different steps. You can say no to any of those steps if they feel too big, and we can find something else that feels better for you. At the end of this, the things that feel really scary won’t feel as scary any more.’

•  Explain how a stepladder works.


When you have them curious about the plan, or at least open to listening to it, explain how a stepladder works. Start with an example using something that other kids might be scared of, but which your child is fine with. Keep letting them know there will be an out. As soon as your child feels that they might be forced to do something they feels frightening for them, their fight or flight response will kick in, overwhelming and sending offline the part of their brain that can receive the information and put it to good.

‘So this is how it works, and remember, I’m just going to explain it – it doesn’t mean you have to do it. Let’s say there was someone who was scared of heights. This would make playing on slippery slides very tricky – all that fun that would be missed! What do you think they could do to make themselves more okay with climbing the slippery slide ladder? How could they get used to being higher on a ladder little bit by little bit?’

See what they come up with (and remember, kids with anxiety often have a beautifully quirky way of looking at things). This process of planning and analysing will be strengthening the connections in their pre-frontal cortex – the part of the brain that is needed to bring calm during anxiety, but which usually steps back at just the wrong time.

Hopefully, they will say something like, ‘Well first ask them to climb onto a little step, then when they get used to that, ask them to go higher and higher until they get used to it.’ If they come up with something like this, they understand the stepladder approach. If they come up with something completely out of left, like, ‘Just tell them not to go where there are any slippery slides and then they won’t get sad about not being able to go on them’, then you might need to get involved with a little prompting.

Make it personal.

When you feel as though they understand the idea of gradual exposure, talk about how they can do this with their own fear or phobia. Ask them what they would like to be more okay with. Remember, something is only a problem if it is getting in the way for them. Give them a little prompting if you need to:

‘Do you think it would be good for you not to be so worried about school? Perhaps we could look at that. I think it’s something you could become really brave within no time. What do you think?’

Break it down.


Break the fear into smaller worries and steps that your child can deal with. It’s really important that you involve them in this process. They’ll be much more likely to stick to the plan if they’ve been heavily involved in coming up with it. Start with a mild version of whatever it is that is causing the fear. Make it super-easy to start with. 

So, if they are afraid of being on their own in their own bed at night, work with your child to come up with the steps. The first step might be leaving a little light on all night with you staying beside them in their bed for 10 minutes and then checking on them every 3 minutes. Do this until they feel okay with this step then move to the next one, perhaps laying beside them then checking every 5 minutes. Then, when they’re ready, move to the next step, maybe a quick cuddle and checking every 10 minutes. Put the steps in order from easiest at the bottom of the ladder to hardest at the very top of the ladder.

Here is an example for someone who is scared of dogs:

    >> Start with a book about dogs. Spend some time looking at the pictures.

    >> Move to a fluffy toy dog. Touch it and hold it with them.

    >> Watch a movie about a friendly dog.

    >> Hold a friendly little dog (a real one) and encourage them to look at it.

    >> Hold a little dog and encourage them to touch it.

    >> Let them hold the little dog.

    >> Encourage them to look at a bigger friendly dog.

    >> Encourage them to pat the bigger friendly dog.

Keep a very small distance between steps.

It’s really important to make sure that the steps aren’t too far apart. The smaller the distance between the steps, the easier it will be for your child to come on board with the plan, and the greater the likelihood of success. If the steps are too far apart, the risk is that they will lose confidence when they are unable to complete the step – and that won’t be good for anyone. 

There’s no hurry.

Take as many steps as your child needs to get to the top of the ladder comfortably, and spend as much time as you need to on each step. There’s no hurry. Going gently is critical. Repeat the steps as many times as it takes for your child to feel confident enough to move to the next step. Every time they accomplish the step, the experience is changing their brain and strengthening the parts that support resilience, confidence and brave behaviour. It will also be imprinting over the memory of the experience on that step as a scary one. Rather than it being scary, it becomes tolerable as new experiences feed into the right brain with new memories and new feelings, such as success and pride. Your child will learn that the more they do something, the less anxious they will feel. Repetition leads to familiarity which over time will decrease their anxiety.  

If they get stuck between steps.

If your child becomes stuck between steps, it may be because there is too much distance between the steps. In this case, work with your child to come up with possible ways to break the step down even more. If your child tries a step and fails, this might take affect their confidence a little and send them back. 

If this happens, don’t worry. Check how your child is making sense of this. Are they telling themselves that they ‘just can’t do this stuff,’? ‘That there’s no point’? If this is happening, shift the focus away from them and onto the behaviour. They are really capable of getting this, but perhaps there was too much of a gap between the steps. They can do it, but they just can’t do it YET. It might just take a little more time, and that’s always okay. It doesn’t matter how long it takes to get to the top of the ladder. What matters is that they’re moving closer and closer towards it. 

Encourage them to see it from a different angle by putting them in the position of bystander, rather than as the star of the show. This will help to access a different part of their brain. What would they say to someone else who wasn’t able to complete that particular step just yet? What would that person need to hear to be okay to try again next time? Some steps will just take a little more time and effort than others, and that’s to be expected.

Make it worth their effort.

Stepladders can be challenging for anyone – especially kids – though they will have it in them to be brave. Your child might not see any good reason to put themselves through it. For your child, it might seem like a perfectly reasonable option to avoid whatever it is they’re scared of for the rest of their lives. Completely understandable. 

You might not be able to change the way they feel about taking their steps but you might be able to influence their behaviour. This is where rewards might come in handy. We all need a reason to do the tough stuff. Kids are no different, and ‘you’ll feel better in the future’ might not wash as a good enough reason. They might need an added boost. When they aren’t able to see the long-term benefit (and it’s completely reasonable that they might not be able to) we need to give them enough to make it worth their effort in the short-term. Remember, even the biggest reward won’t work if the fear or anxiety is too big. The steps have to be small. 

Rewards don’t need to be excessive and they don’t need to be material. Things like time with you, doing something fun or staying up later might be enough to get them over the line. The reward has to be given as close as possible to when the step is achieved, and it should only be handed out if the step is achieved. All attempts deserve to be acknowledged – they won’t always make it on the first go, but there are other rewards for that – praise, cuddles etc. 

And finally …

It’s important to keep in mind that the goal isn’t to completely get rid of the anxiety, but to make it manageable. Your child might still feel a little anxious about the dark or being away from you, for example, but it will no longer get in the way for them or for you. Having a little bit of anxiety is normal, healthy and realistic. Part of living well is understanding that sometimes we do feel anxious, scared, lonely, sad, angry, and that a manageable amount is okay. The problem is when it takes over that it gets in the way. 

We don’t want to take away the normal avoidance behaviour that will protect them and keep them safe. What we want to do is to help them to manage the fear and to not be squeezed out of life because their anxiety is so intrusive. We want to teach them that life isn’t as scary as it feels sometimes and that they are amazingly resilient little beings with incredible ability to cope, even when they don’t feel like it.



Our nearly 4 year old grandson has developed an intense and seemingly irrational fear of the sounds of washing machines (particularly at homes other than his own) and vacuums, and sump pumps, after being totally into them and most mechanical things anywhere for a year or more. This recently was such a fear for him he was unable to enjoy a family cabin weekend rental. At the same time, he is able to totally tolerate and enjoy many much louder sounds, like lawnmowers, and other lawn tools.


Thank you for this informative article. My son is 10 years old and is perfectly fine throughout the day but when it comes to bedtime, he worries about “not being able to fall asleep.” He often carries around an alarm clock waiting almost for bedtime so he can get to bed. We have tried slowly increasing the time he stays up to show him that he is getting enough sleep regardless of a few minutes here and there. He sometimes works himself up that he throws up or he may get out of bed a few times asking to be ‘tucked in again.” We are trying to help him see that there is nothing to worry about. Any other advice for what we can try to eliminate his need to go to bed at a certain time and the worry that sometimes leads him to throwing up thinking his body isn’t going to get enough sleep or he won’t be able to fall asleep? Thank you kindly!

Nicola S

Thank you for this article. Our 3 year old daughter has developed a fear of buttons and zips. We can’t think of a triggering event and she finds it difficult to explain why she doesn’t like them. She is ok holding them but really dislikes any of her clothes with buttons on. We are concerned as she will start school next year and the uniforms have buttons on. We will start the stepladder technique and see if that gives us some progress.


Thank you for this article! My 10 year old daughter has developed an irrational fear of wind. She checks the weather forecast and if it says anything more than ‘gentle breeze’ she gets very panicky that there is going to be a hurricane. She sees the trees moving gently in the breeze and thinks there is going to be a big storm. She is happy to stand outside and acknowledge that it is just a breeze, and she tells me she knows nothing bad will happen, yet she can’t get rid of the feeling of anxiety and foreboding about what might happen. She has been in a very strong wind on a hill about 10 months ago which I think has triggered this fear, and it’s been getting worse in the last few months. She asked if we get hurricanes in this country, having seen images of devastation in America last year, and although I told her hardly ever, she knows there was one in 1987 so in her mind it could easily occur again, and this is what she is focused on. We have talked about different wind speeds and drawn up a scale, but her mind still jumps very easily from ‘breeze’ to ‘hurricane’. She’s actually ok outside when its breezy, as I think she can feel it’s not too bad, but her anxiety is worst when at home looking out of the window and seeing the trees move and her brain just starts imagining the worst. Do you have any suggestions on how else we can try to manage this anxiety? Thank you


Hi Alex,
Just wondering if you’ve had any luck with your daughter’s fear of the wind? My 5 year old recently started going through the same thing. I believe it is triggered by the thought of hurricanes as well. It has become so intense that she cries during recess even with just the slightest breeze- fingers plugging her ears, eyes closed, refusing to play with her friends. A complete meltdown when it is actually windy- she won’t even look out the window. I can’t seem to ease her mind. Have you found any tactics that have worked for your daughter?
Thank you!


This is exactly like my 7 year old son. Did yours ever overcome it?? Or should i seek out a therapist?

Aoife Young

I would love to hear if ye have had any luck overcoming this fear of the wind with your children.
My 10 year old’s fear of the wind started in Aug 2018 when she got a fright on a very windy day on the beach. Her fear has now progressed to a full on phobia. In the last month she can’t seem to do any of the things she usually loves to do- go to school, friends house, cousins house, after school activities. She is refusing to go on a summer caravaning holiday that we have booked with her friends family a long time ago. She fears is could get windy. Her idea of wind is a light breeze to the rest of us.
It affects all the family. Anywhere I turn to get her help there seems to be waiting lists.
I’d love to be able to help her overcome it myself but she is a stubborn little one at the best of times! Any suggestion is met with a definite NO.
I’m kind of relieved to know I’m not the only one with a child with this phobia.
Would love to hear how ye got on.

Andreea A

This article was really helpful, thank you! I have a 2 years old girl – S and I am pregnant with a second child (First trimester). S is still breastfed and in fact she loves it so much she’s still asking for multiple feeds during the day and night. All until this afternoon, when she wanted to play with the foam letters in the bath, so I let her play with no water inside but, accidentally, I touched the water tap and cold water got one of her feet wet. She got so scared, she wanted to run away. I took her out immediately but she didn’t want me anymore (as I was the one causing the cold water). She run straight to her daddy. We thought this will pass quickly but she refused to be near me ever since. I could see tonight that there was a battle in her mind, as she wanted breast milk but she didn’t want to come to me. This is heartbreaking for me. I can’t accept the thought that my little girl who was almost obsessed with ‘mama’ is avoiding my cuddles and refuses to be breastfed. It could be because of all the hormones that are happening as I’m pregnant and breastfeeding, but the only thing that got me to stop crying and be focused for a little bit, was this article. I will try the stepladder approach, letting her to play with the letters outside of the bath and explaining to her how the bath tap works. I am really hoping that this won’t change into a long term phobia! P.s. tonight was for the first time when her dad put her to sleep.


I don’t have a story behind my fear but ever since I was little I always feared rollercoasters. I don’t know why but it may be the fact that when I went to the park in Virginia on the news they mentioned that a man died on a rollercoaster in like 1968. And yes I know that the death counter is probably low but still I don’t want to be one of those unlucky fellows. And I know that I’m afraid of rollercoasters and not so much of heights, I know because I can always seem to go on the slow rides like the fairy-go-round or the big surfboard at Cedar point. The highest I’ve gone was on the intimidator in South/North Carolina.


Thank you so much for this article. My 11 year old is so scared of wind that he is avoiding going to play with his friends and going outside whenever he can for fear that it will get windy. He gets so anxious that he can’t be talked down and wants to be picked up from school even when it’s just a light breeze outside. This article gave me good ideas and we read it outloud together. Thank you. Hopefully this works. He is also with a counselor at his school.

Melanie F

Since I was a small child, I have had extreme fear of moths and butterflies, coupled with horrendous nightmares of my fingers swelling up and bursting like hot dogs do and dibilitating anxiety, depression, PTSD, ocd, this phobia, and add. What does all this together mean?

Karen Young

Hi Melanie
I would really encourage you to work with a counsellor or therapist to explore what this means for you. This work would also be really helpful in supporting you to manage what’s happening so it is less intrusive in your life. Wishing you all the very best.


My 3 year old daughter has developed a fear of using the toilet after hearing a very loud flushing while she was using the toilet on a ship. At first she refused to use all toilets even at home and at relatives, now she has come round to using the toilets she was familiar with, but completely refuses and has panic attacks when pushed to use toilets outside. She even started wetting herself at school and is now leaving school early due to this problem. We tried explaining that there is nothing to be scared of, tried with rewards and she is even attending play therapy sessions however nothing seems to be working. What is the best way to tackle such a situation?

Karen Young

Your daughter’s fear is understandable given her age. Keep doing what you’re doing and exposing her to the toilets she feels safe with, gradually exposing her little but by little bit you utter public toilets.


My 8 year old grandson has phobias. It started with buttons when he was 2 or 3 years old. This school year his class has to learn how to play the recorder. He is terrified of blowing into the flute-like instrument. His teacher suggested that he pretend that he is blowing, but to just hold it to his lips. The first day of class his body shook with fear and anxiety. I am wondering how the ladder strategy would work for helping him take the next step. I have a feeling that the teachers suggestion was a good initial step that helped him actually touch the recorder, but now it seems like he is using the “pretend” suggestion as an avoidance technique.


My 12 year old is extremely afraid of dogs. She told me she was going to work on her fear of dogs and I have tried to be patient with her. We’ve tried to get her to pet him. She barely touched him with the tip of the finger and that was a month ago. She refuses to be around him uncaged. I have tried to get her to sit outside with him roaming free and she won’t. I have tried to get her to go on a walk with us and she cried and screamed the whole time. She wants me to give him away. I don’t know how to help her.

Karen Young

It sounds as though petting might be too much to start with. Try starting with pictures of dogs, or looking at dogs through a fence and then work up from there.

Jacqueline P

My 5 year old son has suddenly become afraid of getting dirt (and anything else) under his nails. He heard a story about someone that got a tick under their nail and he has been terrified ever since. He also had an ant crawl near his head recently and has become afraid of bugs, which is causing him to not want to play outside. It’s been 4 days and I’m at my wits end. I’ve been trying everything but he’s really fixated on his fingernails and stuff getting in there. Thank you for this article but I would love to hear more suggestions. I’ve been trying to educate him so he is not afraid but his fears are intense and lingering. He just finished kindergarten and has been home for just under 2 weeks. I’m sure the drastic change in routine has not helped. I’ve heard this can be a trigger for anxiety, etc.

Elizabeth C

My 6 year old daughter has developed an extreme fear of bees/wasps. This started at her field day at school last month when she kept getting buzzed by bumble bees. She wasn’t stung, but she’s having a hard time going outside because there’s always some flying insect around. I had to pick her up early today because she thought she heard a wasp fly by her. I got her some new outside toys and we spent the afternoon outside playing. If a flying insect came anywhere near her I had her come stand by me and just move away from it. She did really well but I’m worried that she will panic if I’m not there. I hate seeing her so afraid.


Hi Elizabeth. My 5 year old has started with the same fear and panic around bees and loved being outside before this. Did your daughter show improvement? Any tips on what worked for her?

Trisha M

My 11 year daughter has an extreme phobia of fruit candy ( fruit snacks, skittles, gum, etc) so much so that anyone who has touched it is “contaminated” and she doesn’t want to be around them or makes them wash their hands. She emotionally melts down when she is around anyone eating it.
I am having a hard time figuring out how to do the stepladder approach with her.

Karen Young

Trisha, this sounds difficult for both of you. First, explain that you understand how tough it is for her, and that you imagine she would prefer not to feel like this. Then, work on the stepladder plan. Ask her, what you can do that would be braver than last time? You might start by looking at pictures of the fruit candy, then looking at a real box of it, then looking at the candy itself, then smelling it, touching it, eating a tiny bit of it, then more and more. Spend as much time as you need to on the steps. Remember, there is no hurry. If she isn’t willing, ask her for a first step that she would be willing to take. I hope this helps with some ideas for how to move forward.


This was a great article and gives me some direction to go in with my almost 4 year old son. He is petrified of wind. It started before he was 2 and has gotten progressively worse over the last 2 years. I tried not to worry at first because I figured it would be something he outgrew, but I have noticed recently he is becoming more more anxious anytime it is windy outside. He HATES seeing the trees or other objects move because of the wind. Yesterday, we had a blow up pool in the backyard which he loves but once he noticed the slightest breeze he was in a panic laying on top of it, begging me to bring it inside. It breaks my heart knowing that my comfort and reassurance does not seem to help him with this. Any thoughts on ways I could step ladder this subject?

Karen Young

Try to get him involved in the plan. When it is windy ask, ‘what can you do that would be braver than nothing?’ It might be being in the breeze for 2 minutes, then 5 minutes, then in from there. It might involve starting from inside with the door open then moving closer and closer to outside. I hope this helps. All the best to you and your son.


My daughter is 5 and she has started to have fears in the shower with the water. The fear is quite specific, she is scared that the water will overflow the shower tray and flood the bathroom! Or when the tap is on, she worries it will overflow the basin… and now refuses to have a shower …. she is terrified!!!! She has had baths instead for the last few days but concerned with this issue as I don’t want to avoid the problem … any advice would be much appreciated… thank you

Debra D

My 5 yo can be incredibly social and outgoing but also incredibly cautious. It started with buttons. We thought he had SPD but it’s not advanced enough for OT. Then, he loved soccer, but refused to play in games. He didn’t like being watched and just put in half effort. Now, he loves swimming, but is terrified at the meet. He’s a good swimmer, but just freezes at the meet. What can I do to assure him it’s safe? He’s now saying he’s scared of going to kindergarten which he was excited about.


This article was so helpful to read. I have a 4 year old son who despite successfully being potty trained for a few years has developed an intense phobia of doing a poop, which has led to him holding it in and even holding wee in to avoid going anywhere near the toilet. I’m struggling to know how to gently ease him in because holding it on makes him quite sick and he is refusing to go anywhere (nappy/potty/shower/bath). Just holds and holds until he quite literally can’t move. Any advice would be so welcome!


My 9 year old son absolutely loves sport but is super scared of getting hurt so avoids contact such as tackles in rugby / football and even in netball he doesn’t show a desperation for the ball. He always gets himself into space in all sports that avoids getting into a contact situation. If he gets the ball, he often gets rid of it as quickly as possible rather than dribbling / looking for a good pass etc. again to avoid confrontation with another player. He admits that he’s just scared of getting hurt even though he never has been and hasn’t seen any horrendous injuries etc. We want to help him be more brave as he is keen to play for all the school teams etc. but we can see that he won’t be good enough if he doesn’t conquer this fear which would really disappoint him. Obviously he may not have a natural talent but we have seen him do it occasionally and when he does, he is really good – he just doesn’t do it again! Any tips would be gratefully received! Thank you so much!


My 8 year old recently developed a fear of mold. This stemmed from a fear of throwing up. He is not eating or sleeping. He is completely consumed with it. How can I try the Stepladder approach when I can’t really make him get sick?? Appreciate any help or advice.


My daughter has suffered with a fear of throwing up. She’s in counseling and doing a bit better. Now my son is panicking about the same thing! I’d love some advice as well!


This article is exactly what I’m looking for to support my child. I have a 5 year old daughter who is scared of the rain. She says that she gets scared that little drops of rain are going to turn into heavy rain or a storm. This is affecting her education and friendships at school. Can you recommend what the steps could be on the step ladder please? Thanks, Steph

Karen Young

At 5 years old, it’s not unusual for kids to be scared of storms or heavy rain. A lot of this comes from the unknown, so it might be useful to read her books about what storms are, how thunder and lightning are made, where they come from etc, so it can start to make sense for her. Ask her what she thinks might happen. It’s possible she’s heard news stories about people being hurt or killed in storms. If that’s the case, point out to her what’s different about her situation – you stay inside, you don’t go under trees – whatever you can think of that is different to the images or messages she’s taken on about storms. If she’s reluctant to talk to you about it, this can form part of the stepladder. Reading a book about a rain, then one about a storm, standing in gentle rain, watching a documentary about the rain, then watching a doco about a storm. It’s important that the ones you find aren’t scary, but are more gentle and informative. An important part of this though will be clearing up any misperceptions she might have about the dangers of rain and storms, particularly the dangers to her.

Gina G

I’m interested if your daughters fear of storms is still active. What books have helped? My 8 year olds fear has now progressed and if the sky isn’t bright blue he makes a scene about going anywhere outdoors.

Julie H

This was a great article to read! My almost 10 year old daughter is having panic attacks from lightening and thunder! Last night was so bad I started researching and came across this. I like the step ladder approach. After she calmed down I did get some information from her, she remembers someone dying on the golf course close to our house about 3 years ago. this all due to the guy not going inside and staying out under a tree! SO I explained to her about how you have time to get to a safe place from the first instant you hear thunder. She also is a golfer, so i think the fear has intensified, but the past few months its just gotten worse. I really want to help her conquer this and know she will be ok and to just get to a safe place without having a panic attack!


Hi my 13 years old child has phobia and fears. Mainly it comes when he is tensed…during exam time. He has fear about blue whale or anything…like fire extinguisher we have it at home. He was studying about fire extinguisher in his text book and started worrying if he will press it by mistake.he really eats much less during exam time. Otherwise he is very sharp and talented boy. All his distraction disturbs his studies. He is also hypersensitive child( hereditary). Pl help .I have suffered all these myself but during my college time. And it’s really painful. Though I have become strong now but at much later age.

Karen Young

If you’re not able to help your son find relief with the strategies in the article, it might be worth finding a counsellor or therapist for him to speak with. They will be able to provide him with strategies to help him manage his anxiety. The symptoms you are describing can be managed, but your son might need outside support in the form of counselling to give him a hand to do this.


my 8 year old daughter recently got nipped by a crab at the beach and chased by a small bird that was possibly trying to protect a hidden nest. She is now terrified of birds and going in the water at the beach. In fact she is terrified of nature. She becomes ablsolutely hysterical. Now she is also afraid of ants. She says this is because of a book she read at school which had close up pictures of ants faces and now she just thinks they’re “freaky”. Thank you for this helpful article. Should I try individual steppladders? Or a more generalised one that covers anything “scary”? Thank you so much for all this wonderful information and all your helpful and patient comments!

Karen Young

Just do one thing at a time with the stepladder. Have a chat with your daughter about which fear she Thinks gets in the way the most and which ones don’t really get in her way as much. She might want to start with an easier one but let her decide. The more control she feels as though she has, the more she will be able to commit – and that’s a win-win for everyone.


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We have to change the way we talk about anxiety. If we talk about it as a disorder, this is how it feels.

Yes anxiety can be so crushing, and yes it can intrude into every part of their everyday. But the more we talk about anxiety as a disorder, the more we drive ‘anxiety about the anxiety’. Even for big anxiety, there is nothing to be served in talking about it as a disorder. 

There is another option. We change the face of it - from an intruder or deficiency, to an ally. We change the story - from ‘There’s something wrong with me’ to, ‘I’m doing something hard.’ I’ve seen the difference this makes, over and over.

This doesn’t mean we ignore anxiety. Actually we do the opposite. We acknowledge it. We explain it for what it is: the healthy, powerful response of a magnificent brain that is doing exactly what brains are meant to do - protect us. This is why I wrote Hey Warrior.

What we focus on is what becomes powerful. If we focus on the anxiety, it will big itself up to unbearable.

What we need to do is focus on both sides - the anxiety and the brave. Anxiety, courage, strength - they all exist together. 

Anxiety isn’t the absence of brave, it’s the calling of brave. It’s there because you’re about to do something hard, brave, meaningful - not because there’s something wrong with you.

First, acknowledge the anxiety. Without this validation, anxiety will continue to do its job and prepare the body for fight or flight, and drive big feelings to recruit the safety of another human.

Then, we speak to the brave. We know it’s there, so we usher it into the light:

‘Yes I know this is big. It’s hard [being away from the people you love] isn’t it. And I know you can do this. We can do hard things can’t we.

You are one of the bravest, strongest people I know. Being brave feels scary and hard sometimes doesn’t it. It feels like brave isn’t there, but it’s always there. Always. And you know what else I know? It gets easier every time. I’ve know this because I’ve seen you do hard things, and because I’ve felt like this too, so many times. I know that you and me, even when we feel anxious, we can do brave. It’s always in you. I know that for certain.’♥️
Our job as parents isn’t to remove their distress around boundaries, but to give them the experiences to recognise they can handle boundaries - holding theirs and respecting the boundaries others. 

Every time we hold a boundary, we are giving our kids the precious opportunity to learn how to hold their own.

If we don’t have boundaries, the risk is that our children won’t either. We can talk all we want about the importance of boundaries, but if we don’t show them, how can they learn? Inadvertently, by avoiding boundary collisions with them, we are teaching them to avoid conflict at all costs. 

In practice, this might look like learning to put themselves, their needs, and their feelings away for the sake of peace. Alternatively, they might feel the need to control other people and situations even more. If they haven’t had the experience of surviving a collision of needs or wants, and feeling loved and accepted through that, conflicting needs will feel scary and intolerable.

Similarly, if we hold our boundaries too harshly and meet their boundary collisions with shame, yelling, punishment or harsh consequences, this is how we’re teaching them to respond to disagreement, or diverse needs and wants. We’re teaching them to yell, fight dirty, punish, or overbear those who disagree. 

They might also go the other way. If boundaries are associated with feeling shamed, lonely, ‘bad’, they might instead surrender boundaries and again put themselves away to preserve the relationship and the comfort of others. This is because any boundary they hold might feel too much, too cruel, or too rejecting, so ‘no boundary’ will be the safest option. 

If we want our children to hold their boundaries respectfully and kindly, and with strength, we will have to go first.

It’s easy to think there are only two options. Either:
- We focus on the boundary at the expense of the relationship and staying connected to them.
- We focus on the connection at the expense of the boundary. 

But there is a third option, and that is to do both - at the same time. We hold the boundary, while at the same time we attend to the relationship. We hold the boundary, but with warmth.♥️
Sometimes finding the right words is hard. When their words are angry and out of control, it’s because that’s how they feel. 

Eventually we want to grow them into people who can feel all their feelings and lasso them into words that won’t break people, but this will take time.

In the meantime, they’ll need us to model the words and hold the boundaries firmly and lovingly. This might sound like:

‘It’s okay to be angry, and it’s okay not to like my decision. It’s not okay to speak to me like that. I know you know that. My answer is still no.’

Then, when they’re back to calm, have the conversation: 

‘I wonder if sometimes when you say you don’t like me, what you really mean is that you don’t like what I’ve done. It’s okay to be angry at me. It’s okay to tell me you’re angry at me. It’s not okay to be disrespectful.

What’s important is that you don’t let what someone has done turn you into someone you’re not. You’re such a great kid. You’re fun, funny, kind, honest, respectful. I know you know that yelling mean things isn’t okay. What might be a better way to tell me that you’re angry, or annoyed at what I’ve said?’♥️
We humans feel safest when we know where the edges are. Without boundaries it can feel like walking along the edge of a mountain without guard rails.

Boundaries must come with two things - love and leadership. They shouldn’t feel hollow, and they don’t need to feel like brick walls. They can be held firmly and lovingly.

Boundaries without the ‘loving’ will feel shaming, lonely, harsh. Understandably children will want to shield from this. This ‘shielding’ looks like keeping their messes from us. We drive them into the secretive and the forbidden because we squander precious opportunities to guide them.

Harsh consequences don’t teach them to avoid bad decisions. They teach them to avoid us.

They need both: boundaries, held lovingly.

First, decide on the boundary. Boundaries aren’t about what we want them to do. We can’t control that. Boundaries are about what we’ll do when the rules are broken.

If the rule is, ‘Be respectful’ - they’re in charge of what they do, you’re in charge of the boundary.

Attend to boundaries AND relationship. ‘It’s okay to be angry at me. (Rel’ship) No, I won’t let you speak to me like that. (Boundary). I want to hear what you have to say. (R). I won’t listen while you’re speaking like that. (B). I’m  going to wait until you can speak in a way I can hear. I’m right here. (R).

If the ‘leadership’ part is hard, think about what boundaries meant for you when you were young. If they felt cruel or shaming, it’s understandable that that’s how boundaries feel for you now. You don’t have to do boundaries the way your parents did. Don’t get rid of the boundary. Add in a loving way to hold them.

If the ‘loving’ part is hard, and if their behaviour enrages you, what was it like for you when you had big feelings as a child? If nobody supported you through feelings or behaviour, it’s understandable that their big feelings and behaviour will drive anger in you.

Anger exists as a shield for other more vulnerable feelings. What might your anger be shielding - loneliness? Anxiety? Feeling unseen? See through the behaviour to the need or feeling behind it: This is a great kid who is struggling right now. Reject the behaviour, support the child.♥️

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