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Teen Phobias

These debilitating mental disorders — marked by extreme, irrational fears — can drive sufferers to self-medicate with substances. Unfortunately, addiction is often the result. If your child is battling addiction and a phobia, you can help them by seeking treatment.


7 min read

What Is a Phobia?

When a person develops an extreme fear of a specific thing — a fear vastly disproportionate to the actual risk of harm — it may be considered a phobia. While we all have fears and emotions triggered by stressful events, those with phobias (also called “phobics”) will usually be afraid to an irrational extent that interferes with their day-to-day life.

Phobias are characterized by intense dread. More than 19 million people in the U.S. have specific phobias — 8.7% of the population.

What Causes Phobias?

young frightened boy

Phobias tend to develop early in life — some between the ages of 4 and 8 — often spawning from traumatic experiences or overwhelming life situations. Genetics or a family history of certain phobias can play a role as well, especially if children are progressively aware of their parents’ fear during childhood.

Complex phobias, such as social phobia, are harder for doctors to pin down. Abnormal brain chemistry may be more involved, in addition to stressful experiences and family history. Treatment for these phobias or disorders is more challenging for doctors than addressing minor, individualized phobias.

What Are Examples of Phobias?

There are over 100 defined specific phobias, including the following:

    • Xenophobia – fear of strangers or foreigners
    • Arachnophobia – fear of spiders
    • Decidophobia – fear of making decisions
    • Iatrophobia – fear of doctors
    • Aviophobia – fear of flying

What Is Social Anxiety Disorder?

Social Anxiety Disorder (social phobia) is marked by crippling anxiety from being around or talking to other people. People with social phobia have a constant fear of being judged, feel nauseous or overly self-conscious in the presence of others, and worry for days or even weeks leading up to a social gathering.

In the U.S., there are 15 million people who have social anxiety disorder. Approximately 1 in 8 teens who identify as “shy” meet the criteria for social phobia.

In response to these debilitating fears, they tend to stay away from places where other people are present and have extreme difficulty in making or keeping friends. Social phobia develops at an average age of 13, but nearly 40% of people with this disease experience symptoms for 10 years or more before seeking help.

What Is Nomophobia?

teen on computer and phone at same time

Short for “no-more-phone phobia”, nomophobia the fear of being separated from your phone. It is a recently diagnosed phobia especially affecting young people, a byproduct of how technology has wired people to our devices like an addiction to drugs.

A 2015 survey revealed that 92% of teens keep their smartphones turned on 24/7, and 73% have anxiety when their battery is dead. This dependency generally decreases one’s attention on tasks and raises overall stress levels.

Phobias and Addictions

Children with untreated phobias or anxiety disorders have a high risk of developing other health problems, such as co-occurring mental illnesses. Psychiatric problems such as depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are commonly associated with phobias.

If your son or daughter struggles with anxiety or fear for too long, they may turn to self-harm or drugs as a way out. In the event your phobic teen begins using drugs or alcohol, it can quickly spiral into a substance use disorder (i.e. addiction).

For teens who have nowhere to turn in coping with emotional issues, drugs and alcohol often seem like easy ways to deal with their pain and face the world. But what these kids fail to realize is that as soon as they take a hit of drugs, they’re adding a whole new problem to their already stressful life. If a substance addiction develops — referred to as a dual diagnosis when there’s a comorbid mental disorder involved — recovery becomes infinitely more difficult.

What Are Phobia Symptoms?

Your son or daughter may seem fearful of something — or several things, for that matter — which is a normal part of human life. But many with an actual phobia never get the help they need, because they don’t ask for help and their loved ones don’t realize something is wrong.

It’s no easy task to understand your teen and how their head works. If you notice worrisome behaviors start to build, though, you should speak to a treatment professional about the problem.

Symptoms of phobia in teens may include the following:

    • Being frightened often, especially about one thing
    • Feeling or appearing sick at the mention of a particular thing
    • Panic attacks
    • Creating reasons for not doing something
    • Avoiding social interactions or public places
    • Abusing substances
    • Evidence of self-harm
    • Trouble in school
    • Constant depression
    • Constant anxiety


What Are the Effects of Phobias?

social phobia concept

When a healthy person feels afraid, they should return to normal shortly thereafter. They may even be talked into facing their fears and can possibly overcome them. But teens with phobias will face an increasing number of problems as their situation goes unaddressed. Specific phobias can cause teens to miss out on many worthwhile experiences (e.g. being in nature, traveling, eating certain foods) and deal with the fallout in their social life. With broader phobias, teens may face repeated failures and have trouble reaching their potential. They may even develop issues with their physical health.

The side effects of phobias can include the following:

    • Missing or failing school
    • Failure to keep friends or relationships
    • Anger, hostility and irritability
    • Eating disorders
    • Financial instability
    • Addiction to drugs
    • Alcoholism
    • Self-harm or suicidal thinking
    • Refusal to seek treatment
    • Declining health
    • Psychological impairments


Each day your child continues to battle an irrational fear, untold consequences can come about as a result. Staying involved in your child’s life can help you motivate them to become confident individuals, and help you notice early warning signs of a legitimate phobia so you can get them the medical attention they need.

“Behavioral therapy and exposure therapy really work for these kinds of fears. You don’t have to put them on lifelong [antidepressants].”

Kathleen R. MerikangasSenior Investigator, National Institute of Mental Health
“What you realize, when you’re on the treatment side of this and you see how much these kids are suffering, [is that] there’s just no way this is some kind of conspiracy to medicalize something,” says Merikangas.

Does My Teen Need Treatment?

If you have seen signs of mental illness or substance abuse in your child, reach out to a health professional right away. These problems are rarely fixed without some sort of intervention. We at have seen the consequences of substance issues that have been left to resolve on their own — don’t let your child’s problem go unaddressed.

Teens dealing with addiction and mental illnesses like phobias tend to benefit greatly from dual diagnosis treatment services, particularly those that use behavioral therapy methods. We at can recommend a list of vetted facilities that adhere to this methodology, or any other method that you or your family doctor believes would be helpful for your child.

It’s crucial that you act now. The longer that a substance abuse disorder or mental illness is allowed to go on, the more difficult recovery becomes. If you like, you can call our drug hotline and speak with a professional addiction advisor, who can guide you through the situation. It’s free and confidential to chat with anyone at — we just want to help. Do not delay in reaching out — your child’s health is too important.


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