7 Ways to Help Your Child Handle Fear
Helping children overcome fears not only eases their anxieties, it also provides an opportunity to build the parent-child relationship. As you and your child work through fears together, he learns to regard you as a valuable source of support.
- Understand why children are afraid
Children do not think like adults. Most of the world is unknown to the child; and children, like adults, fear the unknown. The preschool child cannot reason through each new experience and decide what’s okay and what’s threatening. As if the real world were not scary enough, the ability to form mental images, which develops from two to four years, opens the world of magical thinking with its consequent fearful fantasies. Two-to-four-year-old children are able to recreate people, animals, and things, which they are exposed to in real life mentally, and these mental images may be scarier than the real thing. The cute daytime dinosaur may reappear in fantasy form as a
monster at night, producing the sleep disturbances so
common at this age.
The ability to imagine monsters without the ability to reason them away as imaginary creatures results in a developmental stage where little persons are likely to have big fears. Fears vary from child to child. One child’s fear is another’s fascination. Some children love to play with the vacuum cleaner. Other kids regard it as a noisy monster that eats
things. The school-age child becomes more afraid of changes in relationships, danger, and health issues (e.g., being hit by a car, not being able to breathe, divorce of parents or death). Children become fearful at different ages, at different intensities, and about different things.
Fear is one of the earliest emotions, and with a little help from caregivers, the child can turn this unpleasant feeling into an opportunity for emotional growth. Learning to deal with fears is one of the child’s earliest lessons in dealing with emotions and using outside help. Understand and support your child during these times, and the closeness between you will grow.
- Give a fearless message
First, what not to do. Don’t give your child the message that it’s wrong to be scared. To a growing child, this translates into “something’s wrong with me.” Avoid put downs like: “Don’t be afraid,” “Stop being a baby,” “Big boys (or girls) don’t get scared.” These don’t put out the fears they only drive them underground. Now the child is not only afraid of the dark, but he’s also afraid to tell anybody about his fear, or seek help with handling it. What began as a normal childhood problem is now chipping away at his ability to trust others. Without reinforcing your child’s fears, empathize with them: “When I was a child I was afraid of a dark bedroom, too.”
Acknowledge your child’s fears in order to help her work through them. Strike a balance. Don’t ignore the fears, but don’t get over-involved in them either, or your child will play up the fear to get your attention.
When responding to children’s fears, give them two messages: It’s all right to be afraid; and it’s good to share your fears and ask for help. Reassure your child that “Mom and dad (or trusted adult) will keep you safe.” Remember not to put your child down by saying: “There’s nothing to be afraid of” or “That’s silly.” Never use or create fears to discipline your child: “The boogie man will get you if you get out of bed” or “God will punish you if you talk back.”
- Model being unfearful
Helping your child handle fears is much easier if you are closely connected with your child. Your child regards you as a test pilot. If something or someone is safe for you, then it is safe for the child. Stranger anxiety is common between one and two years. Help your child overcome this fear by mirroring to the child that this new person is okay. Many children become fearful of insects because they see an adult freak out when a June bug buzzes by. Same for lightning and thunder. Try singing “My Favorite Things” during a storm to help you stay calm. To handle fear of doctors , prior to your visit, let your child explore a toy doctor’s kit. Play doctor and go through a pretend examination so your child knows
what to expect. Let the child play doctor with his pet, doll, or stuffed animal.
- Always take your child’s fear of caregivers seriously
Normally, familiarity lessens fear. If your child’s fear at being left with a particular caregiver, even a relative, is getting more intense, change caregivers. Even if foul play seems unlikely, give your child the benefit of the doubt.
- Ease bedtime fears
Nighttime is scary time for little people. Fear of the dark and of separation from parents is a double fear that keeps many children awake. Put on a nightlight. Parent your child off to sleep with a soothing story, massage, or song. Leave relaxing tapes playing for an hour or so after bedtime. Young children need these helpers because they cannot use their minds to overcome their fears. The child over four can be helped to work through the fear of darkness. Ask him to tell you what “dark” means to him. Encourage the child to draw the fear: “Draw what your dark room feels like and looks like.” If you get a black sheet of paper with an orange monster under the bed, you’ve pinpointed the fear.
The principle of gradually increasing exposure helps the child overcome fear of the dark. Play dark tag, beginning with the lights on in a room that preferably has a dimmer switch so that you can gradually dim the lights. Play hide-and-seek at dusk, and let the game extend into the darkness. Play follow the leader as you weave around the garden at night on an exploring expedition. Initially, hold your child’s hand as you explore together. Give your child his own flashlight to keep next to his bed so that he can turn it on to shed light onto suspicious piles of clothing that turn into “a bear” when there’s
no light. Sometimes just knowing that he has the power to change the darkness into light is enough to quell the fear. Or just leave a light on in his room; it won’t interfere with his ability to sleep. He’ll start turning it off himself when he’s older.
- Chase “monsters” out of bedrooms
“Daddy there’s a monster in my room.” Is this a real fear or another trick for prolonging bedtime? The empathetic parent treats the child’s concern as real. Here’s how to get the child out of the fearful state and ease him into a sleeping one. Let the child describe the monster and tell you exactly where it is. Walk around the room together, letting the child
share his worries. Realize that fearing monsters is a developmental stage in which the monster stands in for a frightening world. Childish fears being what they are – illogical – an explanation may not work. A more imaginative response is called for: “I’m the dad in this house and I don’t allow monsters in here. He’ll have to leave.” Then you step into the cupboard and have a brief talk with the monster.
Do these kinds of responses mean that you have “caved in” to childish behavior? No, they don’t. They mean you understand what that dark and shadowy room looks like to your child; your recognizing his reality by playing along shows him a way of mastering his fears. How else can a parent confront a pretend monster, if not by pretending a little?
As your child grows older, the problem with joining in on fictitious fears is that you reinforce the idea that monsters really do exist. We don’t believe in “chasing the monster away” games once children can understand the difference between real and pretend. Tell your child matter-of-factly: “Monsters are only on drawings or TV. They aren’t real. And even if they were real, Daddy wouldn’t let them get in our house.” Draw a monster picture and show your three-year-old the difference between real and imaginary. (“Monsters are pretend. Lions are real and Daddy won’t let any lions in here either.”)
Try helping your child imagine a substitute scene: “When you dream about anything scary, imagine a train at the end of your bed.
Whenever you’re afraid you can hop on the train, and mommy and daddy will be right there in the train with you. You ride around in the train for a little while with mommy and daddy, and then the train comes back and stops at the end of your bed. You get off, and you crawl back into bed, and by that time you’ll forget the scare.” Offering substitute make-believe works for the sensitive child who feels threatened at any suggestion that the monsters aren’t real and that therefore you
think he’s dumb for even thinking about monsters. The best way to get rid of nighttime fears is to prevent them by practicing a style of nighttime parenting that helps the child feel that sleep is a pleasant state to enter and a fearless state to remain in.
- Get rid of fearful characters
Fear of fantasy characters is one of the most common fears in the preschool child. If your child’s favorite imaginary characters are not keeping him awake at night, bothering him at school, or making him a generally fearful person, join in the fun, and let your child enjoy the fantasies while they last. If they are interfering with your child’s emotional development, help your child work through what is imaginary and what is real. The child under six has difficulty separating make-believe from reality.
Banish scary characters from your child’s environment. Turn off scary TV shows and videos. Even better, limit TV and videos for preschoolers to very selective viewing. Beware of films and cartoons that were created for older children and adults. Help your child discern the difference between real and imaginary characters. Talk about how cartoons and movies are made. Use puppets to put on an act. (“See, these aren’t real; they only talk with your voice or move if you pull the string.”)
Be careful not to transfer your own fears to your child. For example, your toddler is climbing up on the counter. If you immediately give him the fear message, “You might fall!” or “That’s dangerous!” he probably will fall. Fear can actually make risk situations more dangerous. It’s best to calmly walk over to the child and assist him.
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