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Braz J Psychiatry. 2017 Apr-Jun;39(2):118-125. doi: 10.1590/1516-4446-2016-2064. Epub 2017 Mar 9.

Specific and social fears in children and adolescents: separating normative fears from problem indicators and phobias.

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Instituto Nacional de Psiquiatria do Desenvolvimento para Crianças e Adolescentes (INPD), Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento Científico e Tecnológico (CNPq), Porto Alegre, RS, Brazil.
Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS), Porto Alegre, RS, Brazil.
Universidade Federal de São Paulo (UNIFESP), São Paulo, SP, Brazil.
Department of Medical Social Sciences, Feinberg School of Medicine, and Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, USA.
Universidade de São Paulo (USP), São Paulo, SP, Brazil.
Intramural Research Program, National Institute of Mental Health, Bethesda, MD, USA.



To distinguish normative fears from problematic fears and phobias.


We investigated 2,512 children and adolescents from a large community school-based study, the High Risk Study for Psychiatric Disorders. Parent reports of 18 fears and psychiatric diagnosis were investigated. We used two analytical approaches: confirmatory factor analysis (CFA)/item response theory (IRT) and nonparametric receiver operating characteristic (ROC) curve.


According to IRT and ROC analyses, social fears are more likely to indicate problems and phobias than specific fears. Most specific fears were normative when mild; all specific fears indicate problems when pervasive. In addition, the situational fear of toilets and people who look unusual were highly indicative of specific phobia. Among social fears, those not restricted to performance and fear of writing in front of others indicate problems when mild. All social fears indicate problems and are highly indicative of social phobia when pervasive.


These preliminary findings provide guidance for clinicians and researchers to determine the boundaries that separate normative fears from problem indicators in children and adolescents, and indicate a differential severity threshold for specific and social fears.

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