Helping Kids Conquer Fears

Human beings, children and adults alike, naturally fear the unknown. That is one of the reasons why children become easily frightened--so much is new, and they don't have the experience to know what is safe or dangerous. Also, when children are between two and four years old, their ability to imagine develops, creating those monsters under the bed and the nightmares that haunt their sleep. Interestingly, a vivid imagination develops before reasoning skills. Thus your child will have difficulty understanding that there are no monsters under the bed and never will be. Supporting your child through his or her fears and helping him or her to overcome them can create a bond between you that will last for the rest of your life.

How to Help Empathize with your child. Don't tell your child it's wrong to be scared. This might cut off communication between you; he or she will feel ashamed of this completely normal emotion. Avoid saying things like, "Don't be a baby," "Big boys/girls don't get scared," and "Stop being afraid." Try to empathize with his or her fears without reinforcing them. Say something like, "When I was your age, I thought there might be something scary under the bed, too." Make sure you don't get over-involved in the fears, though--your child might start playing up the fear to get attention.

When talking to your child, you want to make sure that you affirm that 1) It's fine to be afraid, and 2) It's good to share your feelings and ask for help.

Model confidence. Young children often mirror their parents' emotions. If you are concerned about the lightning and thunder outside or become frightened around animals, they will be too. If you are frightened about something in particular, perhaps you could show your child that you are working to overcome the fear by trying the following tip yourself.

Explore the fear. Many experts say that if a child has a specific fear, it is good to look at that fear from a distance, and then gradually get closer. For example, if a child is fearful about going to the doctor, begin by explaining to the child what goes on during a check up. Check your local library for a picture book about going to the doctor and read it together. Another idea is to buy an inexpensive doctor's kit and let your child play, giving a doll or teddy bear an examination. If an older, unafraid sibling has a doctor's appointment, you might want to take the fearful child along to observe and realize that the older one is fine.

If your child is scared of an animal, such as a dog, it might be nice to watch a show about animals first (Clifford the Big Red Dog is a great option), then arrange for someone, like you or another sibling, to interact with a real dog while your child watches from a distance. After your child seems to be comfortable with that, ask around and see if anyone knows of any puppies that your child could play with (the younger, less rambunctious kind is best, but make sure the mother dog is okay with the interaction). Don't force your child to pet the puppies, but encourage him or her to at least watch them for a while. Eventually, your child should feel comfortable enough to interact with the puppies.

This formula should work with most fears. Just remember to think of comfortable situations for your child that will still expose him or her to the fear (TV shows, books, watching from a distance) and eventually move closer. Understand that it might take some time for your child to overcome the fear and gain confidence. Be supportive and patient throughout this process.

When the Fear Is Valid It's easy (well, easier) to help your child overcome things that you know aren't scary--the dark, imaginary monsters, etc. But what do you do when your child is scared of something that frightens you? A recent study surveyed 1,000 children grades 2 through 12, and found that the most common fears included being threatened with a gun, AIDS, and not being able to breathe. The two biggest fears for children 7 to 10 years old were kidnapping and dying, which ranked high above a fear of the dark.

One of the first things to do when dealing with valid fears is to limit your child's exposure to the news. Young children don't understand that when a news clip is shown repeatedly, it is only one event--they are likely to think that there are far more kidnappings, severe car crashes, or escaped lions than there actually are. Try watching the news in a different room from your kids, or only when your children are asleep.

When your children express a realistic fear to you, ask them to tell you exactly what they have heard and how they feel about it. Children often hear rumors at school, and the facts may have been blown out of proportion. Tell your child that the chances are remote that their fear will actually happen. But don't expect your child to immediately say, "Oh, okay." It's natural for them to continue to be worried.

Making a plan with your child can often be a confidence booster--it helps them feel like they have some control. Discussions about things like dialing 911 in an emergency, reacting to a stranger approaching, and knowing your family's fire safety plan can help your child feel prepared in an emergency.

Anxiety vs. Fear If you've noticed that your child continues to act scared even when there is nothing scary around, you might want to consider if your child has anxiety. Fear and anxiety have very similar symptoms: shortness of breath, muscle tension, and increased heart rate. These are brought on by the body's fight-or-flight reaction. However, even though they might appear similar, they are very different.

Fear is an emotional response toward a situation whereby an individual feels threatened. The cause of the threat is realistic, meaning your child is only concerned about dogs when he or she sees one.

Anxiety, on the other hand, is a psychological disorder that occurs even when there is no apparent risk or reason for physical harm to occur. Quite often the child cannot tell the parent exactly what is causing the fear. If your child seems to be suffering from anxiety, you might want to consider a trip to a child psychologist. A trained doctor is better equipped to help your child overcome this emotional issue.

--- Reading for Bravery Books are a great way to get closer to a particular fear without actually confronting it. It can start conversations about the fear and help your child pick up on coping strategies. See if any of these books could help your child with his or her struggle, or take a trip to the library and pore over their collection.

  • Fear of the dark: Bedtime for Frances, by Russel Hoban
  • Fear of separation: Ira Sleeps Over, by Bernard Waber; The Kissing Hand, by Audrey Penn
  • Fear of preschool: D.W.'s Guide to Preschool, by Marc Brown
  • Fear of monsters: Go Away, Big Green Monster!, By Ed Emberley
  • Fear of dogs: Dog Magic, by Carla Golembe
  • Fear of heights: A Net of Stars, by Jennifer Jacobson
  • Fear of storms: Thunder Doesn't Scare Me!, by Lynea Bowdish
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