The Heart of Anxiety, Panic, Phobias & Lying

"There is a monster in the world for every child who runs from their fear of the dark."

By: Michael G. Conner, Psy.D


"Carry me Daddy."

"Why Caitlyn?"

"Because I love my Daddy."

"Caitlyn. Are you afraid of that dog over there?"

"Well, yes, Öbut I like him. Iím just scared."

About three years ago, Caitlyn and I were sitting on a sidewalk curb having a hot chocolate on a beautiful spring morning. A man walked over with his black dog. The dog came within inches. Suddenly he attacked us. I spun around putting my back to the dog while Caitlyn screamed and climbed up on my shoulders. The man dragged the dog back. Then he looked at me and said, "Sometimes he does that."

From that day forward Caitlyn has been afraid of dogs, especially black dogs. What happens to Caitlyn each time she sees a dog is called a "single episode conditioned response". When Caitlyn sees a black dog, she has an emotional memory of fear. In her case, and in the case of many other children, the impact of a traumatic experience can "generalize" or "spread" to related objects. Because dogs are very similar, Caitlyn soon became afraid of brown dogs and then dogs the same size. After a while she just became afraid of dogs. Years after the original incident several dogs in our neighborhood chased Caitlyn and scared the heck out of her. Her conditioned fear response to black dogs, which was fading, came back and soon spread to other animals. At this point Caitlyn was very embarrassed by her fear of animals. She avoided talking about it or letting people know that she was afraid.

Caitlyn would often say, "I know they wonít hurt me Daddy, but Iím still scared." Weíre talking about a genuine fear that was even harder for a child to cope with because she knew her fear was not justified. It didnít help Caitlynís self-confidence when she and I couldnít talk her out of being afraid. Sometimes talking helps. Other times it doesnít. But you need to try.

As a psychologist, I knew that fear, anxiety, panic attacks, phobias and lying have a lot in common. Children struggle with these problems as much, if not more so than adults. Let me continue by removing some of the mystery surrounding some terms.

What is Fear? Fear is a physical reaction that comes from our nervous system and involves changes in the level of certain chemicals called neurotransmitter and hormones. Once these chemicals are released into your system, it takes a while for them to disappear Ė usually hours. And there is a fine line between what we call fear and what we call excitement. In some cases we decide that a fearful situation is exciting. In others cases we conclude that our fears are unwanted. Roller coaster rides may be fun, but dogs attacking you are not. In either case, the physical reaction is exactly the same. It all depends on how we look at it, and whether or not we have control or safe guards that will protect us.

What is anxiety? Anxiety is another word for fear. Fear and anxiety have the same physical symptoms. Anxiety is really a clinical term that is associated with a child or adult who is fearful most of the time for reasons that may not be clear or understandable. Fear of a barking dog is different than anxiety when you go to work. Anxiety is common with people who are naturally sensitive or threat sensitive. These people become fearful rather easily and they may experience some degree of fear most of the time. Children who are freighted a great deal of the time can also become anxious when there is nothing to be afraid of.

What is a panic attack? A panic attack is simply an intense fear reaction that happens all at once. It doesnít build over time. It happens all at once, and it is powerful. The flood of chemicals that are released during a panic attack can actually interfere with many things including thinking, breathing, sensations and our ability to walk. The person having a panic episode may not even recognize what caused them to panic. Children will rarely have panic attacks unless they have been traumatized. Not knowing what caused the person to panic can make them feel more out of control - and feeling out of control can make the symptoms worse.

What is a phobia? A phobia is a fear reaction that is persistent over time each time the person is facing a specific object or situation. A phobia can be learned or you can be born with it. Some children are naturally terrified of things like heights, snakes or bugs. Other children can develop a phobic reaction to things like dogs, water or the dark.

Fear is a natural reaction. It is common for children to be naturally afraid of heights, certain animals, the dark, being alone and even strangers. They usually grow out of it, especially if they donít have another traumatic experience. A child threatened by a dog on a well-lit street during the night can become afraid of dogs. But they may also become afraid of the dark or even afraid of being outside during the day.

Facing fear can build self-confidence and self-esteem. Fear reactions serve an important purpose. They warn children and create pressure for children to take some action to escape, avoid or minimize a fearful situation. Children may run, cry for help, and even close their eyes when they are afraid. Strong emotional bonds develop between a parent and children when the parent protects their child from fearful situations. Fear is also import for children to gain self-confidence and self-esteem. Part of growing up and becoming independent requires children to face fears Ė but only those fear they are ready to face and only the fears that wonít overwhelm them.

In order to build self-confidence, there must be the possibility of failure. A child must also develop an effective solution in order for that child to feel confident in their abilities. Courage is the ability to face a significant fear while acting responsibly and effectively - even after numerous attempts or failures. Courage is earned and very different than the mere fact that some people are not easily threatened.

Unexpected and excessive fear is bad for kids. A prolonged experience of fear can be a problem for children when they are growing up. Prolonged anxiety over time can impair a childís learning as well as their health and safety, and it can have a very negative impact on a childís personality and approach to life. Children are usually afraid when they see their parents fight, talk about leaving them or they talk about ending the marriage. Children are afraid when they are left alone, feel abandoned or when their parents act worried all the time.

Why do children lie? Understanding the relationship between fear and lying is one of the best ways to deal with children if they start lying. Children lie because they are afraid to tell the truth or face the truth. Children who lie have usually had experiences where they subsequently learned that telling the truth is more uncomfortable than lying. Most of the time children first learn to lie by watching their friends, family or strangers lie.

If children want to avoid reality, or they want to avoid how they feel about their real self, they may end up telling lies about what they were doing, their friends, their families, their abilities, or their belongings. Children say things like "My Daddy is on a secret mission", "I didnít do it" or "I have a pony". The purpose of lying is to feel better or to avoid feeling worse. Children who are afraid of how they feel when they tell the truth may become liars. Lying is a common way that children learn to avoid anxiety, panic, feeling bad and punishment.

In some cases, lying can become a chronic disorder. Some children would literally have a panic attack if you could force them to face the truth about life, their parents or their self. Lying is one way that children are closing their eyes and ears to the truth. In some cases, lying can become a lot like a phobia Ė a fear of telling the truth.

Chronic lying is a very real problem. Parents are really confused when their child continues to lie even after the child is repeatedly caught and punished. Parents get frustrated when children donít learn from the consequences of lying or their punishment after they are caught in a lie. Unfortunately, many children don't learn. They just learn to try harder next time so they wonít get punished. In the case of chronic lying, there comes a point when punishment, restriction, taking things away and grounding children will only make the situation worse. It is time to get professional help when things just get worse.

When a child is in a dark room, they may come to believe there are monsters in the dark. In some respects, there is a monster in the world for every child who runs from their fear in the dark. It makes no difference that children are usually just afraid of the dark. The result that a child will feel better when they run can end up proving that the monster is now gone and that a monster really existed. We may forget the monster when we grow up, but we can end up terrified of the dark.

There are many ways to run, avoid and escape monsters, people, scary situations and life. But we avoid facing the truth and we avoid facing life each time we run. The monsters grow and our fear spreads when we avoid, escape, minimize or lie. Whatever imagined fear we may hide from, it will become more real each time we run and hide. Yes there are dangerous things in the world and awful things can happen. The challenge for each child and their parents is to face those fears with skill, courage, a secure relationship and persistence. The role of a parent is to protect their child while allowing them to face feared objects and situations without becoming overwhelmed or traumatized.

Caitlyn has gotten over the fear of animals. Her black kitty named Cookie had a lot more to do with it than I did. But the black cat was my idea. She is still afraid of large dogs. She was afraid of Cookie at first. But now they are friends. It didnít hurt that Caitlyn grew up with the most wonderful Golden Retriever in the world. Jasper is gone now. He died. But his memory lives on in Caitlyn. Iím betting that a new puppy and this kitty will be a great antidote to a scary black dog.

copyright 2003 to 2008, Michael G. Conner