Helping Children Learn How To Overcome Fear
When it comes to children’s fears, it can often seem like very little makes sense. But actually, their fear is not only developmentally appropriate, but also an essential human emotion necessary for survival.
Which leaves parents in a tough spot: faced with a real reaction to something that doesn’t – to an adult’s mind – warrant such emotion. So when your toddler tells you she’s scared of feathers, or your preschooler tells you he’s scared of the monster in his closet – what do you do? We spoke with child psychiatrist Dr. Bhooshan Shukla and Jehanzeb Baldiwala, a child and family therapist at Ummeed Child Development Centre in Mumbai, to find out how parents can best help children learn how to overcome fear.
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Above all, Dr. Shukla says, parents need to remember two things when helping a frightened child. The first is that fear is an important emotion that goes a long way toward keeping your child alive. So, rather than deny or ignore the fear, it’s best if they admit and express fear.
Second is that allowing children to talk about fear and to be involved in creating strategies for how to overcome fear is an important part of moving past these childhood fears. This means parents need to refrain from telling kids their fear is baseless or irrational.
“This might appeal to an adult mind, but will not work with a child,” Dr. Shukla says. “The moment fear has consumed your mind, logic really doesn’t work at all. It’s a fundamental emotion that paralyses logic completely. Telling your child, ‘Yes, I understand you’re afraid; I am here with you and I’ll look after you,’ is more appropriate than anything else.”
Read on for suggestions on helping your child learn how to overcome the most common types of fears.
For roughly the first year, fear is reflexive. Excessive or unexpected stimuli like loud noises as well as unfamiliar faces and voices can frighten children trying to make sense of the vast world around them. At such a young age, beyond comforting your child and speaking to him or her soothingly, there’s not much you can do to mitigate this type of in-the-moment fear.
But Dr. Shukla offers some practical tips: “Parents [if they intend to] should put children in day care early, around the fifth or sixth month, or delay it until after the age of 2, when the stranger anxiety has completely disappeared.”
Yet even around ages 2 or 3, it is common for children to still worry about the unknown. For instance, a child being potty trained might worry about being washed down the drain as the toilet flushes. The solution, Dr. Shukla says, is not to get angry, but to look for halfway points and compromises – perhaps by letting your child use a potty next to the actual toilet until the toilet becomes familiar.
Toddlers tend to fear concrete objects or direct experiences, such as thunderstorms, barking dogs, or large objects. At this point, parents most need to comfort and reassure the child, Baldiwala says.
“There is no point in telling your child not to be scared at that moment,” she says.
Afterwards, look for opportunities to provide alternative, positive experiences with whatever it is the child fears – for instance, if a child is scared of dogs, parents could introduce her to a friendly neighbourhood dog, or read a positive story with a dog character.
Intangible fears can start as early as age 2. They can come in many forms, but two of the most common are separation anxiety and fear of death.
Very young children have trouble understanding the concept of object permanence – that is, if they cannot directly observe a person or thing, they think it may be gone forever. Which is why kids may be scared when parents leave for work, or drop them off at the daycare. While most kids will grow out of this phase within a couple of years, there are some things a parent can do to ease the severity of their reaction.
It’s also possible around ages 3 to 4, that children have their first experience with death. It’s natural at this point for parents to worry about how much truth a scared child can handle, but Dr. Shukla says the truth is what’s most important for children to hear.
However, he says truth can be modified so as to be age appropriate. There is a big difference between volunteering the truth and responding truthfully when kids ask questions. For instance, there is no reason to volunteer the information that everyone will die; but if, say, a frightened child asks specifically about death – as in, whether a family pet could die – it’s best to acknowledge the truth, reassure the child that it’s not likely, and move on.
“Children are not looking for detailed answers,” Dr. Shukla says. “They are looking for temporary security.”
“Telling children straightaway that monsters don’t exist won’t work because it threatens their understanding of their world,” Baldiwala says. In other words, kids use their imaginations to find meaning in the world; refuting these imagined explanations might cause the child do lose faith in his or her own judgement and perception of the world.
Baldiwala suggests parents help kids develop strategies for dealing with their fear, no matter how silly. For instance, talking about what a monster is, what it wants, and what its weaknesses are could draw out the idea that the monster is actually friendly and nothing to be scared of, or provide your child with a strategy — such as yelling once loudly — for keeping the fear at bay.
“Allow children to come up with their own answers,” she says.
Above all, she adds, avoid instilling fear in imaginary creatures or scenarios for the sake of obedience.
While some of the above fears are learned through experience or observation, there are many irrational fears – such as fears of heights or of lizards – that children may pick up from parents or other caregivers.
“It’s okay for your child to see your fear,” says Baldiwala, as it normalizes the emotion and helps children learn that fear doesn’t have to be paralyzing. However, she says, it’s important to keep your reactions as measured as possible.
This article is part of a series on fear in childhood. Read part one on how childhood fears develop and part two on how parents contribute to fear.
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