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Mental Health

Irrational Fears in Children



My five-year-old little girl has developed a severe irrational fear of being kidnapped. She`s terrified to be alone and it breaks my heart. An example is we were in the mall and waiting at a table in the court when I needed to pick-up our food order. It required me to literally walk 40 feet away and she would have been able to see me the entire time. When I mentioned this to her she had a complete look of terror and ended up coming with me. I don`t want her to be a frightened child as I experienced the same type of anxiety as a little girl/adolescent and it was horrible. I have taught her calming techniques when she becomes frightened or anxious such as thinking of something that makes her smile and happy. Ocassionally this appears to provide temporary relief. She`s very independent in other areas of her life and not fearful of being away from her father and me. She has never really suffered from separation anxiety and she does sleep in her bed by herself (unless she awakes in the middle of the night). What else can I do to help her and nip this in the bud before it excalates? She tells me that her tummy begins to hurt when she`s nervous/frightened/anxious and that she feels shaky inside. I do suffer from moderate anxiety as an adult but I have learned the mental and physical components of anxiety and have it under control. I can`t explain that to a five-year-old however.


Physical symptoms and the acute self-awareness of anxiety that your child expresses indicate her own perception which can be used by a trained professional to help her recognize and overcome the irrational response to the environment. It is no surprise that anxiety disorders run in families and anxiety problems are the most common behavior difficulty in childhood. Most typically these are generalized anxiety disorder (e.g. the worry wart) or separation anxiety.

Irrational fears, such as you describe, can be a symptom of another, less common anxiety problem, obsessive-compulsive disorder. If these irrational fears have persisted for longer than 8 weeks, they probably will require intervention. I would seek the help of a trained child behavior specialist, a psychologist or child psychiatrist. 

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Response by:

Floyd R Sallee, MD
College of Medicine
University of Cincinnati