views updated May 14 2018


Changes in the occurrence and handling of children's fears in the West fit into the pattern in which the history of childhood has been discussed in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Notions of the "discovery" of the child in early modern times and of the absence of emotional relations between parents and children seem less convincing now than they did in the 1970s, when enthusiasm for the idea that personal relations could change in a short period of time was fresh. But without any doubt, ideas about how children should be raised show considerable shifts, and the debate about education has intensified since the eighteenth century. The social position of children changed in a long process in which childhood came to take several decades instead of (for most social classes) one.

Fear as a Pedagogical Tool

Everyday life in traditional society seems to have been determined by fear, since ignorance of natural phenomena, long periods of disease, and social strife made daily existence insecure. Religion was for a long time supportive in this world full of fear, but from the sixteenth century on became divided and destabilized. With religious disputes dominating public life, basic fears were reported to have been experienced in the religious domain as well.

In his autobiography, Grace Abounding, John Bunyan, who was born in 1628, tells his readers about the "fearful dreams" and "dreadful visions" which afflicted him while sleeping, and which were caused by "Devils and wicked spirits" but were ultimately sent by God to punish him for his sins. His greatest fear was the Day of Judgment, on which he might be ordered to spend his time "amongst Devils and Hellish Feinds."

By the eighteenth century, however, an enhanced confidence in knowledge and rationality made fear an undesirable relict, which was soon labeled as childish. In traditional society, fear had been used extensively in the raising of small children. In circumstances where it was difficult to keep an eye on the little ones who crept around and were in danger of getting lost, drowned, or burned, the bogeyman was a powerful tool to prevent children's dangerous inquisitiveness. As children got older they could prove their fitness for adult society by discarding their fears of a whole range of monsters, batmen, toe-shearers, werewolves, and childeating roosters that had been said to be after children all over Europe. Before 1800 only few autobiographers wrote about their childhood fears, but those who did usually mentioned frightening stories told by adults. Isabelle de Moerloose, born in Flanders around 1661, confessed that she was afraid of a man wearing a long cape, who roamed the land to kill babies by putting a ball in their mouths.

Autobiographical writings confirm that parents widely used the bogeyman as a pedagogical tool. Even an educated person such as the Dutch statesman and poet Constantijn Huygens, born in 1596, threatened his little daughter with a creepy doll in a black cape. Such dolls were made especially to serve this purpose. Nineteenth-century autobiographers still frequently complained about parents who frightened them. Willem van den Hull, for instance, wrote that to keep him away from the canals, his mother had taught him that death lived underwater and was lingering to grab his feet and pull him down under if he dared come too close.

Since the seventeenth century, a growing number of pedagogues warned against such methods. According to the Dutch writer Jacob Cats, bogeymen had such an impact on the "tender senses" of children that they would never lose their early fears. John Locke, in his influential Some Thoughts Concerning Education, advised parents to keep children away from frights of all kinds and he warned against "telling them of Raw-Head and Bloody Bones." In the eighteenth century the practice was even more widely condemned. Betje Wolff, the first female Dutch pedagogue, protested the practice avidly, the more so because she was herself being scared by the "black man" in her youth. She called fear and fright "the poison of a child's heart."

To protect children from real dangers, bogeymen remained an acceptable practice, but writers on education warned that they should never be used for fun. Rational use of bogeymen, however, was embedded in a culture in which childhood and fear were still interwoven with deep-rooted beliefs and customs. Marina Warner, for instance, cites a particularly bad-tempered Italian lullaby: "Go to sleep, may you die in your sleep, that the priest come to take you to keep! Ninna oh, Ninna! To whom shall I give this little girl? To the bogeyman I'll give her, for a whole day he will keep her. " Peasants who threatened children with the terrible corn mother to make them stay out of the fields may themselves have had a vague belief in ghosts and spirits.

Conquering Fear

In the new literature on childhood that began appearing in great supply in the second half of the eighteenth century, the conquest of fear became an important educational goal. As Peter Stearns and Timothy Haggarty have noted, the enthusiasm for actively encouraging children to master their fears prevailed in the nineteenth century, in advice literature as well as in stories and books for children. But the age at which is was considered fit to help children overcome their fear was lowered. It also became customary to think that adults (and especially mothers) were the source of children's fears because they transmitted their own fears to their children.

In feudal society, the show of fear had been functional in relations between the social classes, especially in the behavior of inferiors toward their superiors; only the aristocracy had been supposed to show defiance. Fearlessness had been admired intensely, as numerous fairy tales testify, but most people could not afford it. During the eighteenth century, the ideal that men were free and equal left no room for people to consider fearfulness an acceptable attitude. As children in general lack the self-control needed to suppress expressions of fear, this changed attitude toward fear was one of the phenomena that enhanced the distance between children and adults. Children were banned from polite society as long as they were supposed to be unable to control themselves.

As the psychological costs of this suppression of fear became clear to psychiatrists, and possibly even more to artists and writers, toward the end of nineteenth century, the emphasis of advice-givers on the handling of children's fear shifted to avoiding fearful situations as much as possible. Actively instilling fear into children as an educational tool, which had already been discouraged during the nineteenth century, became an abhorrent type of miseducation in the twentieth century. As parents had more opportunities to supervise their children, or to have them supervised, instilling fear in children made little sense anymore. Thus the conditions for a modern attitude toward fear were first realized in the upper and middle classes. As most advice literature was meant for these groups, who were living in comfortable circumstances where children could be prevented from endangering themselves, bourgeois parents began to worry about the contact their children had with representatives of the lower classes. This is notable in the extensive warnings against the possibility of housemaids scaring the children in their care. In books on education, children's fears were taken much more seriously after the second half of the nineteenth century; parents were encouraged to pay attention to any sign of distress. Where fear had been seen as a moral defect, in the course of the twentieth century new psychological insights considered it a natural phenomenon, something children could never be blamed for.

The Experience of Fear

Advice manuals and children's books provide the material with which to write the history of emotional standards, but childhood memories bring us closer to the actual experience of how fear shaped the identities of children in the past. In the absence of systematic studies of childhood memories, some preliminary conclusions from a study-in-progress of 500 autobiographies from the Netherlands and Flanders, covering the period from 1750 to 1970, show that one out of five of these autobiographies mentions fear, which makes it clear that it was a focal point. The social bias in the available authors commands caution, however: upper-class witnesses dominate the early period (up to 1850), whereas a solid majority from the middle class, with emphasis on white-collar professions, is evident throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The earliest statements show a remarkable agreement with the normative sources: aristocratic boys remembered with pride that they had been put to the test of their fear of darkness, being asked to get a Bible out of a distant, unlit church or being ordered to fetch a bottle of gin from an inn on a night when there were rumors of burglars in the neighborhood. In particular they remembered the praise they received after fulfilling these commissions. They even remembered their mothers' protests against their being put to the test. Having to fight the dark outside the house has almost completely disappeared from twentieth-century childhood memories. Actively forcing children to overcome this fear by sending them out in the dark is only mentioned by a few lower-class boys; middle-class parents seem to have taken the hints of educational reformers who opposed the practice. But autobiographies contradict the advice books too: the horror stories told by servants are duly reported, but for every child who was scared by them, at least one remembers them with delighta fondly remembered exercise in the control of fear.

What were children afraid of? In search of their first memories, almost one in three of the autobiographers comes up with sudden frights. Being lost in a crowd, the parents being out of sight, or a fire can easily be understood as impressive moments that can trigger a first memory. But many more mysterious moments are remembered only as anxious distress whose immediate cause has been lost. Some autobiographers simply state they were afraid of everything when very young.

The dark has inspired by far the most memories of childhood fears. Though it would seem feasible that night was less horrifying when children slept in the same bed or at least in the same room with others, some witnesses claim that the presence of sleeping family members enhanced their fright. If the others were not snoring, was it a sign they had suddenly departed? Were the monsters only after the children who did not sleep? But most memories of terrible fears in the night have been delivered by middle-class children who slept in their own bedrooms, with noises coming from all sides while they were on their own to cope with them. Whether night lights were a help is questionable. Enough witnesses remember the disturbing shadows and the spluttering sound adding to their misery. But many children asked for a light and remember the struggles they had to wage to be allowed one. Mentions of this fear declined in later years, with the most recent mention by an autobiographer born in 1918, which supports the idea that electrical light made a big difference, especially since many children have lamps by their beds that they can operate themselves and few people now feel they have to be economical with electricity.

Thunder and lightning could be overwhelming experiences, especially when others who were present could not master their fear. Quite a few autobiographers remember older brothers and sisters in distress: it was a moment of triumph for the smaller children. When the person who was afraid was an adult, the distinction between children and adults was lifted for a moment as children saw to their amazement that they were more in control of themselves than the trembling aunt or maid. Fathers visibly affected by the tempest, however, were a too severe breach of security: they left their children feeling that the world itself could perish.

The ubiquity of death in traditional society was an emotional burden to children and adults alike. In modern times the mystery of death became a more explicit moment of fear as children remembered clearly the day they realized their mortality for the first time. Many record it as a nauseating panic against which parents were almost helpless. Generalizations are dubious here, however: some autobiographers tell about childhood confrontations with sudden deathsbodies encountered, skeletons foundthat seemed only comical and made an impression only because other people were scared.

Generalized fear of the future seems to be a relatively recent phenomenon, not mentioned in memories of youth before 1880. Children have coveted adulthood as an escape from humiliating childhood. They remember their desire, but at the same time considered the future a frightening place where one had to be able to do all kinds of things that seemed very difficult. By the time childhood came to be valued as a special period in life, in the later nineteenth century, autobiographers wrote more specifically about their reluctance to grow up. How could they master all the skills in time to hold their own? The proliferation of vague fears about the future is a symptom of the disappearance of childhood in the last decades of the twentieth century. Rumors of war tend to result in frantic war games among the boys, but also in stifling anxiety. The horrors of mass warfare during two world wars, with carpet bombing, gas attacks, genocide, and nuclear destruction, had a great impact on children, but it is difficult to say to what extent this impact differed from that of warfare in previous centuries.

Finally, since the eighteenth century, all forms of fear appear in children's books, and since the twentieth century in movies and on television, continuing a much older tradition of telling children folktales and ghost stories. Children's fears are today exploited by writers and film directors, because in a paradoxical way fears have a great attraction. Often, but not always, the causes of fear are presented in a sensible way and the level of anxiety is coupled to the age of the intended audience. Nevertheless, books and films that are read or watched by children younger than their intended audiences have in the last decades been a new source of fears.

See also: Child-Rearing Advice Literature; Emotional Life.


Bakker, Nelleke. 2000. "The Meaning of Fear. Emotional Standards for Children in the Netherlands, 18501950: Was There a Western Transformation?" Journal of Social History 34: 369391.

Dekker, Rudolf. 1999. Childhood, Memory, and Autobiography in Holland from the Golden Age to Romanticism. London: Macmillan.

Stearns, Peter N., and Timothy Haggerty. 1991. "The Role of Fear: Transistions in American Emotional Standards for Children, 18501950." American Historical Review 96: 6394.

Warner, Marina. 1998. No Go the Bogeyman: Scaring, Lulling, and Making Mock. London: Chatto and Windus.

Rudolf M. Dekker

Hugo RÖling


views updated May 23 2018



Fear is an intense aversion to or apprehension of a person, place, activity, event, or object that causes emotional distress and often avoidance behavior. Fears are common in childhood.


More than 50 percent of children experience normal phobias , which is the fear of a specific object, or more general worries, called anxieties, before they are 18 years old. For adults it may be helpful to distinguish between rational fears, such as fear of snakes or guns, which are survival mechanisms and serve to protect a person from danger; and irrational fears, or phobias, which cannot be traced to any reasonable cause.

Most children have some fears. Fears are normal, and can be a good thing. For example, children need to know they should not run into a street. They need to know not to play with knives. A little fear is good, but too much fear is a problem. So is too little fear. A child with too much fear may not want to leave the house. A child with not enough fear may get into a stranger's car. Children's personalities also will influence their fears. One child may be scared of more things than another child. Some children are braver, while others are more shy and fearful.

Many childhood fears fall somewhere between the rational and irrational, occurring in phases as the child or adolescent is exposed to new experiences and as both cognitive reasoning and the capacity for imagination develop. Whether a child's fear is considered normal generally depends on his or her age, background, and most importantly on how much it interferes with his or her normal daily activities. Fear of water may be considered normal in a child who has never learned how to swim, but it might be considered abnormal in the adolescent son of a coastal fisherman.

The most significant factors in overcoming fear are identifying the fear, developing a sense of control over the feared environment, and envisioning alternatives to the feared negative outcomes. Forcing children to perform activities they are afraid to do destroys, rather than builds, autonomy and self-confidence. If a child refuses to do something or explicitly voices fear, those feelings should be taken seriously and explored through questions and discussion. Parents can ask the child or adolescent what change can be made to accommodate the fear in order to make him or her feel more in control.

Some research suggests that reading scary picture books functions as a courage-building tool for children and helps them face their fears in a controlled environment; they are free to turn the page or to remind themselves that the monster is not real. Horror stories or movies may serve the same purpose for teens but not for children who cannot exercise the same level of choice by leaving the theater and should not be exposed to disturbing movies.


Babies fear falling, being dropped, and loud noises. A fear of strangers is also common in infants starting at the age of seven to nine months and lasting until about 18 months, when it begins to decrease. Fear symptoms in infants are primarily crying, stiffening, and sometimes shaking.


Fears among toddlers include strangers, animals, bugs, storms, sirens, large objects, dark colors, darkness, people with masks, monsters, and "bad" people, such as burglars. Children at this age also commonly fear being separated from their parents. Fear symptoms in toddlers include crying and avoidance of the feared person or object.


Preschoolers fear being separated from parents, being left alone or sleeping alone, and imaginary figures, such as ghosts, monsters, and supernatural beings. Symptoms may be physical, such as a stomachache or headache .

School age

In younger school-age children, fears include separation anxiety ; death; violence, such as in war or murder; kidnapping and physical injury; natural disasters such as floods, earthquakes, and tornados; and anxiety about academic achievement and other forms of school performance. Children at age seven often have a fear of not being liked while children ages eight and nine may worry about personal inabilities.

In older adolescents, common fears include anxiety about school achievement, social rejection and related worries, and sexual anxieties, including dating and sexually transmitted diseases , especially human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

Symptoms in adolescents and teens include anger, avoidance, and denial of the fear, and panic reactions, such as sweating, trembling, fast heartbeat, and rapid breathing.

Nearly all fears have a scientific name, such as triskaidekaphobia, the fear of the number 13. In the classic Christmas television special, "A Charlie Brown Christmas," Charlie Brown had pantophobia, the fear of everything. Other common fears include:

  • ailurophobia (fear of cats)
  • didaskaleinophobia (fear of going to school)
  • entomophobia (fear of insects)
  • glossophobia (fear of speaking)
  • myctophobia (fear of darkness)
  • ophidiaphobia (fear of snakes)
  • xenophobia (fear of strangers or foreigners)
  • zoophobia (fear of animals)

Common problems

Research shows that most children report having several fears at any given age. Some research shows that 90 percent of children ages two to 14 have at least one specific fear. If the fear does not interfere with the child's daily life, such as sleeping, going to school, and engaging in social activities, then professional help is generally not needed.

Phobias belong to a large group of mental problems known as anxiety disorders and can be divided into three specific types: specific phobias (formerly called simple phobias), social phobias, and agoraphobia.

A specific phobia is the fear of a particular situation or object, including anything from airplane travel to dentists. Found in one out of every ten Americans, specific phobias seem to run in families and are roughly twice as likely to appear in women. If the person rarely encounters the feared object, the phobia does not cause much harm. However, if the feared object or situation is common, it can seriously disrupt everyday life. Common examples of specific phobias, which can begin at any age, are fear of snakes, flying, dogs, escalators, elevators, high places, or open spaces.

People with social phobia have deep fears of being watched or judged by others and of being embarrassed in public. Common social phobias in children include reading aloud in front of a class; participating in a musical, drama, or athletic event; starting or joining in a conversation; talking to adults; attending social events, such as dances and parties; taking tests; attending physical education class; using school or public bathrooms; and asking a teacher for help.

Social phobia is not the same as shyness . Shy people may feel uncomfortable with others, but they do not experience severe anxiety, they do not worry excessively about social situations beforehand, and they do not avoid events that make them feel self-conscious. On the other hand, people with social phobia may not be shy; they may feel perfectly comfortable with people except in a public place. This feeling usually begins about age 15 and affects three times as many women as men.

An episode of spontaneous panic is usually the initial trigger for the development of agoraphobia. After an initial panic attack, the person becomes afraid of experiencing a second one. Patients literally "fear the fear," and worry incessantly about when and where the next attack may occur. As they begin to avoid the places or situations in which the panic attack occurred, their fear generalizes. Eventually the person completely avoids public places. In severe cases, people with agoraphobia can no longer leave their homes for fear of experiencing a panic attack.

Agoraphobia is the intense fear of feeling trapped and having a panic attack in specific situations. Social phobias may be only mildly irritating, or they may significantly interfere with daily life. It is not unusual for people with social phobia to turn down job offers or avoid relationships because of their fears.

Parental concerns

While normal fears tend to be experienced in phases and tend to be outgrown by adulthood, abnormal fears are those that are persistent and recurrent or fears that interfere with daily activities for at least a month. Abnormal fears, including extreme separation anxiety, being afraid to go to school, or extreme social fears, may indicate an anxiety disorder.

When to call the doctor

When children's fears persist beyond the age when they are appropriate, they can begin to interfere with their daily lives. Typically, children who experience this type of irrational fear, or phobia, should get treatment from a psychologist.

The most popular and effective treatment for phobias is behavior therapy, which approaches the phobia as an undesirable behavior to be unlearned. Most often it takes the form of desensitization, a technique by which the fearful person is exposed to the feared stimulus in an extremely mild form and then with gradually increasing degrees of intensity. For example, a child who fears dogs may first be asked to look at pictures of dogs, then perhaps play with a stuffed dog or view a dog from afar, ultimately getting to the point when she is able to pet and play with dogs.

Phobias also respond to treatment by medication, including anti-anxiety drugs such as Xanax and BuSpar and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), such as Prozac and Zoloft. Medication is especially helpful for social phobia, where it can help the child overcome her aversion to social interaction sufficiently to work with a therapist. When agoraphobia accompanies panic attacks, it also responds to cognitive-behavioral treatment for panic disorder, often in conjunction with anti-anxiety and antidepressant medications similar to those prescribed for other phobias.

Before, during, and after exposure to the source of fear, the child can begin to imagine controlling the environment and his own reactions in other ways. Creative visualization, for example, imagining a switch the child can use to control his fear when visiting the doctor or dentist, can sometimes be effective. A comforting ritual, a familiar object, or thoughts of a beloved person can be used as a good luck charm before embarking on a scary trip or performing a task such as speaking in class or sleeping alone. Relaxation techniques can also be taught to older children.


Agoraphobia Abnormal anxiety regarding public places or situations from which the person may wish to flee or in which he or she would be helpless in the event of a panic attack.

Ailurophobia Fear of cats.

Cognitive The ability (or lack of) to think, learn, and memorize.

Didaskaleinophobia Fear of going to school.

Entomophobia Fear of insects.

Glossophobia Fear of speaking.

Myctophobia Fear of darkness.

Ophidiaphobia Fear of snakes.

Pantophobia Fear of everything.

Phobia An intense and irrational fear of a specific object, activity, or situation that leads to avoidance.

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) A class of antidepressants that work by blocking the reabsorption of serotonin in the brain, thus raising the levels of serotonin. SSRIs include fluoxetine (Prozac), sertraline (Zoloft), and paroxetine (Paxil).

Triskaidekaphobia Fear of the number thirteen.

Xenophobia Fear of strangers or foreigners.

Zoophobia Fear of animals.



Chansky, Tamar E. Freeing Your Child from Anxiety: Powerful, Practical Solutions to Overcome Your Child'sFears, Worries, and Phobias. New York: Broadway Books, 2004.

Foxman, Paul. The Worried Child: Recognizing Anxiety in Children and Helping Them Heal. Alameda, CA: Hunter House, 2004.

Ollendick, Thomas H., and John S. March. Phobic and Anxiety Disorders in Children and Adolescents: A Clinician's Guide to Effective Psychosocial and Pharmacological Interventions. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Spencer, Elizabeth DuPont, et al. The Anxiety Cure for Kids: A Guide for Parents. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2003.


Dragon, Natalie. "Behind the Headlines: Could TB Pill Help Banish Phobias?" GP (December 15, 2003): 39.

Epstein, Randi Hutter. "Experts Try Fast-Track Fix for Children with Phobias." The New York Times (January 20, 2004): F5.

London, Robert T. "Conquering Phobias." Clinical Psychiatry News (May 2004): 43.

Purvis, Patty. "Fear of Talking (Selective Mutism)." Clinical Reference Systems (Annual 2002): 1261.

Travis, John. "Fear Not: Scientists Are Learning How People Can Unlearn Fear." Science News (January 17, 2004): 424.

Tucker, Libby. "Fear Factors: Everyone Reacts to Fear Differently. Scientists Are Beginning to Understand Why." Science World (February 7, 2003): 1415.


Anxiety Disorders Association of America. 8730 Georgia Ave., Suite 600, Silver Spring, MD 20910. Web site: <www.adaa.org>.

Mood and Anxiety Disorders Institute. Massachusetts General Hospital, 55 Fruit St., Boston, MA 02114. Web site: <www.mghmadi.org>.


"The Anxious Child." American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, December 2000. Available online at <www.aacap.org/publications/factsFam/anxious.htm> (accessed December 10, 2004).

"Helping Your Child Deal with Fears & Phobias." Child Development Institute, March 25, 2004. Available online at <www.childdevelopmentinfo.com/disorders/fears.htm> (accessed December 10, 2004).

Ken R. Wells


views updated May 09 2018


The term fear, whose metapsychological status remains uncertain, was used by Freud, in contrast to anxiety, to refer to the reaction to some real danger. In several works Freud discussed the semantic relationship between the terms Angst (anxiety), Furcht (apprehension, fear), and Schreck (fright). For Freud the distinction between anxiety and fear relates primarily to its object, a distinction found in his earliest writings. In an article from 1895, which discusses the distinguishing characteristics of phobias and obsessions, he differentiates phobias "according to the object of the fear," while anxiety refers to the emotional state experienced by the subject, without reference to a specific object (1895c [1894]). Similarly, in 1916, in his Introduction to Psychoanalysis (1916-1917a [1915-1917]), Freud, referring to the use of these terms in popular speech, indicated that "anxiety is related to a state with no direct allusion to an object, while in fear the person's attention is precisely focused on the object."

In 1920, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920g), Freud emphasized the difference between fear and anxiety in terms of their relation to danger: Anxiety is a state characterized by the expectation and preparation for a danger, "even if unknown," while fear implies a determinate object. In Inhibitions, Symptoms, and Anxiety (1926d [1925]), he further insisted on the association of anxiety with a state of expectancy and the use of the term fear "in keeping with current usage"to represent the situation when anxiety has found an object.

We see that the term fear is quoted with reference primarily to contemporary language. According to Catherine Cyssau, fear has no means of representation and its object does not conform to the criteria for repression. Although the status of anxiety, as an affect, occurs early in the development of Freudian theory, fear is more uncertain and seems to fall mostly within the context of behavioral description. Moreover, the opposition between fear and anxiety is hardly ever mentioned in Freud's later writings, especially in the New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (1933a [1932]), where the theory of anxiety is again discussed.

In fact, another concept appeared in 1916 in Freud's writings, that of "Realangst," which can be translated as "realistic anxiety" or "anxiety in the face of a real danger," and which is contrasted with neurotic anxiety or the anxiety of desire. In the Introduction to Psychoanalysis, Freud emphasized the rational and comprehensive nature of realistic anxiety, triggered by the perception of an external danger, that is, under conditions that can give rise to fear. From then on the fundamental question, to which he would frequently return, was that of the conditions required for the emergence of anxiety, a signal triggered by an external or internal danger.

In post-Freudian work the concept of fear is essentially used to characterize certain infantile manifestations of anxiety. Anna Freud, in particular, insisted on the structural differentiation between archaic, or primitive, fears and the phobias. It is important to remember that the "fear of the stranger's face," which, as described by René Spitz, arises in the infant when it is between six and eight months old, raises the question of determining if this reaction should be interpreted as a realistic anxiety responding to an external dangerthe face perceived as unknownor if it is an expression of unpleasure and the internal threat caused by the absence of the maternal object.

Fright, or Schreck, which is associated in several Freudian texts with traumatic neurosis, corresponds to the effects of a danger for which the subject "is not prepared by an earlier state of anxiety" (1916-1917a [1915-1917]). Freud goes on to say that anxiety contains "something that protects against fright" (1920g).

Roger Dorey has remarked that Freud, in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a), described, in contrast to the "primary experience of satisfaction," an "experience of fright whose origin is external" and which leaves behind a painful memory trace that the primitive psychic apparatus tries to avoid. This flight before the memory of the present pain, is, according to Freud, the "model and first example of psychic repression." Thus, the prototype of fright is nothing but the experience of object loss, an experience that submerges the primitive psychic apparatus in excitations it is unable to control. For Dorey this "painful memory image" of the absent object forms a representation that contributes to the formation of the primal unconscious.

Claude Bursztejn

See also: "Analysis of a Phobia in a Five-year-old Boy" (Little Hans); Annihilation anxiety; Anxiety; Castration complex; Claustrophobia; "Confusion of Tongues between Adults and the Child "; Danger; Drive/instinct; Erythrophobia (fear of blushing); Fright; Guilt, feeling of; Incest; Paranoid position; Phobia of commiting impulsive acts; Phobias in children; Stranger, fear of.


Cyssau, Catherine. (1997). La peur et les phobies: des név-roses d'angoisse à l'hystérie d'angoisse. In A. Fine, A. Le Guen, A. Oppenheimer (Eds.), Peurs et phobies. Paris: P.U.F.

Dorey, Roger. (1988). Le Désir de savoir. Paris: Denoël.

Freud, Sigmund. (1895a [1894]). (1916-1917a [1915-1917]). Introductory lectures on psycho-analysis (Parts I and II). SE, 15-16.

. (1920g). Beyond the pleasure principle. SE, 18: 1-64.


views updated May 18 2018


An emotion arising from awareness of something seen as an imminent danger affecting oneself. It has interested philosophers at least from the time of plato (Leges 644D; 646E) and Aristotle (Rhetorica 1382a191383b11), and has been the subject of intense study by modern psychologists. Definiteness of an object in fear and the occurrence of this emotion in adequately functioning persons have usually been bases for distinguishing fear from anxiety. Since fears of definite things, however, also appear as signs of mental disturbance (e.g., a phobia for closed places or moving vehicles), presence of an "attitude of fear" or a tendency to see danger everywhere better serves to distinguish anxiety from fear.

Moral Aspects. Since responsibility in a moral sense implies the voluntariness of a human act, the question arises as to the influence of fear on the voluntary character of an action. Voluntariness implies some movement on the part of the will, which, in turn, presupposes knowledge, for only a known good moves an appetitive power. A person is morally responsible, then, when he knows what he is doing and retains freedom of action, at least in the sense of having it in his power to do or not to do a given act. Voluntariness implies some movement on the part of the will, which, in turn, presupposes knowledge, for only a known good moves an appetitive power. A person is morally responsible, then, when he knows what he is doing and retains freedom of action, at least in the sense of having it in his power to do or not to do a given act.

In an action done because of fear, there is at least some consent on the part of the will, for we are led to do what we do, not because of the fear itself, but in order to avoid the evil that is feared. Therefore, in an action done out of fear, the voluntary character of the action remains, for it is enough to make an act voluntary that the will contribute something to the action that is done, and this condition is realized in an action done because of fear. It is also clear that fear exerts an influence on the degree of voluntariness of the action, and to the extent that it does, fear diminishes the voluntariness and therefore the responsibility of the action.

To put the matter generally, actions done because of fear remain voluntary and responsible although they become involuntary in a certain respect, and thus lessen responsibility to that extent. What is done out of fear is involuntary in the sense that it is contrary to what would be the will's inclination apart from the circumstances that evoke the fear. A man at gunpoint hands over his wallet to a robber; he would not presumably be willing to dispossess himself in this way except to avoid the evil that threatens him. But the action is, in an absolute sense of the term, voluntary, for the will, in the actual circumstances, prefers to sustain the loss rather than to endure the consequences of resistance. There is thus a mixture of voluntariness and involuntariness in what is done. The action is said to be voluntary simply or absolutely speaking, but involuntary in a certain respect (secundum quid ). The element of involuntariness shows some goodness in the will, even if the action is an evil one, and to that extent diminishes culpability.

This analysis of fear does not include, however, a situation in which a person is so overcome by an impending evil that fear causes him to lose rational control completely. An action performed by a person in such a condition would not be voluntary at all. Voluntary action is always in some way subject to reason. No degree of fear that falls short of depriving a person of the use of reason renders him incapable of controlling his action. Both civil and ecclesiastical laws expressly recognize the influence of fear where contractual obligations are concerned, and in certain cases declare obligations undertaken under the influence of fear to be either void or voidable.

See Also: appetite.

Bibliography: m. b. arnold, Emotion and Personality, 2 v. (New York 1960), an extensive and profound analysis of fear and the other emotions. d. b. lindsley, "Emotion" in s. s. stevens, ed., Handbook of Experimental Psychology (New York 1951). m.l. reymert, ed., Feelings and Emotions: The Mooseheart Symposium in Cooperation with the University of Chicago (New York 1950). r. w. leeper, "A Motivational Theory of Emotion to Replace 'Emotion as Disorganized Response,"' Psychological Review 55 (1948) 521. a. t. jersild, "Emotional Development" in l. carmichael, ed., Manual of Child Psychology (2d ed. New York 1954) 833917. h. selye, The Stress of Life (New York1956). thomas aquinas, Summa theologiae 1a2ae, 6.6. h. davis, Moral and Pastoral Theology, 4 v. (5th ed. New York 1946). j. a. oesterle, Ethics (Englewood Cliffs, N.J. 1957) 6769.

[h. gavin/

j. a. oesterle]


views updated Jun 11 2018


An intense emotional state caused by specific external stimuli and associated with avoidance, self defense, and escape.

Fear is one of the primary emotions, together with joy, anger , and grief. Fear generally refers to feelings elicited by tangible, realistic dangers, as opposed to anxiety, which often arises out of proportion to the actual threat or danger involved. Fear may be provoked by exposure to traumatic situations, observations of other people exhibiting fear, or the receipt of frightening information. Repeated or prolonged exposure to fear can lead to disorders such as combat fatigue, which is characterized by long-term anxiety and other emotional disturbances.

Fear is accompanied by a series of physiological changes produced by the autonomic nervous system and adrenal glands, including increased heart rate, rapid breathing, tenseness or trembling of muscles, increased sweating, and dryness of the mouth. Blood is diverted from other parts of the body to the areas where energy is most needed, either to run from danger or to forcibly protect oneself, a reaction known as the "fight or flight" response. This sudden diversion of excess blood from the cerebral cortex of the brain may also cause fainting, which in animals may actually serve an adaptive function to protect them from predators. In the 1880s, William James concluded that the physiological changes associated with fear actually constitute the emotion itself (e.g., "we are afraid because we tremble"), a view that has been challenged by cognitive psychologists since the 1950s.

Fears first appear in human infants at about seven months of age. Young children generally have more fears than older persons and their fears are experienced more intensely. Within families, studies have shown that middle children as a group experience fewer fears than older or younger siblings. Researchers have disagreed about the extent to which fear is innate or learned, with behaviorists arguing that it is largely learned. Animals have been conditioned to fear previously neutral stimuli through various methods including association, the exposure to paired neutral and fear-producing stimuli to the point where the neutral stimuli become associated with fear, even when presented alone. Certain innate fears such as fear of loud noises, pain , and injury appear to be universal. Species-specific innate fears have also been documented, including a fear of hawk-like shapes in certain animals and a fear of snakes in humans and other primates.

When a person confronts real dangers, fear can be an important means of self-preservation. However, many people are plagued by chronic and unrealistic fears, including phobias and obsessions, that cause much unnecessary distress and can severely reduce their ability to function normally in society. While it is possible to reduce pathological fears through drug treatment, the results are temporary and drugs do not address the root cause of the problem. Mental health professionals offer various types of psychological treatment that either attempt to deal with the underlying cause of the fear through a psychodynamic approach or address the fear directly through behavioral therapy. Behavioral techniques include desensitization (gradually increasing exposure to the feared object), flooding (sudden, intensive exposure to the feared object or stimulus), and modeling (observing another person being exposed to the feared object without being harmed).

Further Reading

Bemis, Judith. Embracing the Fear: Learning to Manage Anxiety and Panic Attacks. St. Paul, MN: Hazelden, 1994.

Forgione, Albert G. Fear: Learning to Cope. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1977.

Nardo, Don. Anxiety and Phobias. New York: Chelsea House, 1991.


views updated Jun 27 2018

fear / fi(ə)r/ • n. an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat: fear of increasing unemployment he is prey to irrational fears. ∎ archaic a mixed feeling of dread and reverence: the love and fear of God. ∎  (fear for) a feeling of anxiety concerning the outcome of something or the safety and well-being of someone: police launched a search for the family amid fears for their safety. ∎  the likelihood of something unwelcome happening: she could observe the other guests without fear of attracting attention.• v. [tr.] be afraid of (someone or something) as likely to be dangerous, painful, or threatening: farmers fear that they will lose business. ∎  [intr.] (fear for) feel anxiety or apprehension on behalf of: I fear for the city with this madman let loose in it. ∎  avoid or put off doing something because one is afraid: they aim to make war so horrific that potential aggressors will fear to resort to it. ∎  used to express regret or apology: I'll buy her book, though not, I fear, the hardback version.PHRASES: for fear of (or that) to avoid the risk of (or that): no one dared refuse the order for fear of losing their job.


views updated May 14 2018

fear fear the Greeks bearing gifts a warning against someone who apparently wishes you well. The saying (often used allusively) is recorded from late 19th century; originally from Virgil, ‘timeo Danaos, et dona ferentes [I fear the Greeks, even when bringing gifts]’ as Laocoon's words of warning to the Trojans about the Trojan Horse (in which the Greek warriors were concealed). Samuel Johnson quoted the Latin in a letter of 3 May 1777, in which he said, ‘Tell Mrs. Boswell that I shall taste her marmalade cautiously at first. Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes.’

see also do right and fear no man, fools rush in where angels fear to tread.


views updated May 21 2018

156. Fear

See also 313. PHOBIAS .

the raising of the hairs on the skin as a response to cold or fear; goose bumps or goose pimples.
1. a nonspecific fear, a state of general anxiety.
2. an abnormal fear of everything. Also panphobia , pantaphobia , pantophobia . panophobe , n. panophobic , adj.
1. an abnormal fear of being af raid; a fear of fear itself.
2. a fear of phobias.
an abnormal fear of many things.


views updated May 29 2018

fear sb. XIII. ME. fēre, repr. OE. fǣr sudden calamity, danger, corr. to OS. vār ambush, MDu. vāre fear (cf. Du. gevaar danger), OHG. fāra ambush, danger, deceit (G. gefahr danger), ON. fár misfortune :- Gmc. *fǣraz, -am, .
Hence fearful XIV. So fear vb. †frighten OE.; intr. and †refl. feel fear; regard with fear. XIV. OE. fǣran (more freq. in comp. āfǣran) = OS. fāron lie in wait, OHG. fārēn plot against, lie in wait, ON. færa taunt, slight. Ult. connections unkn.


views updated May 17 2018

fear (feer) n. an emotional state evoked by threat of danger. It is usually characterized by unpleasant subjective experiences; physiological changes, such as increased heart rate and sweating; and behavioural changes, such as avoidance of fear-producing objects or situations. See also phobia.