3 May 1999

Study Reveals Fears of School Kids

There is a difference between the sexes in what we fear, according to a new study that will appear in the current issue of the Journal of Pediatric Health Care. It seems that boys fear snakes, monsters and scary theme park rides more often than girls do, while girls fear thunderstorms and the dark more than boys do.

Researchers at the Ohio State University researchers examined the fears and anxieties of 86 children aged from 8 to 12 years old. They found that the boys harbored fears related to animals, supernatural phenomena and safety, while the girls tended to fear natural phenomena. This is at odds with the common conception about what girls are afraid of.

The researchers evaluated the children in several ways. They interviewed each child individually, gave the subjects a questionnaire to complete and asked each child to draw a picture of a human figure.

The researchers looked at the drawings for any of 38 specific characteristics - called emotional indicators - that could reflect a child's anxiety, concerns and attitude. The more prevalent the indicators, the higher the anxiety level should be. Some of the emotional indicators in the pictures include shading of the body or limbs; omitting prominent body parts; crossed eyes; and a tiny or extremely large head.

"Because children may not have the words to express that they're afraid or worried, characteristics appearing in human-figure drawings can reveal some forms of serious anxiety," said Nancy Ryan-Wenger, professor of community, parent-child and psychiatric nursing at Ohio State.

The 43 girls and 43 boys participating in the study filled out a questionnaire that measured anxiety traits in children. The researchers examined fear with the interview question "Most people are afraid of something. What are you afraid of?" Finally, each child was asked to draw "a person - a whole person."

During the interviews, each subject reported zero to six fears, with a total of 177 fears described. Boys reported more safety and animal-related fears (74 and 40 percent respectively) than did the girls (58 and 23 percent), while the girls were more afraid of natural phenomena - thunder, the dark, and so on - than were the boys (30 vs. 23 percent.)

Boys also reported more fears than girls when the topic dealt with supernatural phenomena (14 vs. 12 percent) and school (12 vs. 7 percent.)

The researchers found that the presence of emotional indicators in each drawing accurately reflected the degree of anxiety the subjects expressed during the interviews. More importantly, in some cases the drawings also suggested that some children had fears and anxieties not revealed in the questionnaires or interviews.

"Human figure drawings could be a useful additional piece of data collected by nurses or physicians because these drawings might help explain a child's symptoms or behavior," said Ryan-Wenger.

Of course, not every child who includes emotional indicators in a human-figure drawing has a fear that could manifest itself and lead to future problems. Ryan-Wenger cautions parents about interpreting their child's drawings.

"Children tend to grow out of their fears," she said. "A fear is only really significant if it limits a child's normal behavior and growth and development."