I’ll never forget the time a much beloved uncle brought my 3-year-old son a present — a battery operated 2 foot tall robot with flashing red eyes that lurched across the room making beep-beep noises. Uncle thought he’d brought a perfect present for a little boy. But my son would have none of it. He howled and fled the room.
Uncle wisely put the offending robot in a corner and gathered my son into his lap for a gentle talk. He suggested that, with his help, just maybe my son could make friends with the robot. After a reassuring hug, my son was willing to touch the thing. He then wrapped it in a blanket to carry around like a baby, making something he feared into something to care for. Uncle was happy. I was relieved. My son took another step in learning how to manage something he feared.
Parents often ask me how to handle children’s fears. Some studies show that up to 90 percent of children between the ages of 2-14 develop at least one specific fear, with fear of animals, the dark, or imaginary monsters or ghosts being among the top issues. Most of these fears diminish over time. But some are persistent. Some limit a child’s development and opportunities.
We can’t shield our children from everything that may inspire fear. But how a parent reacts to a fear can determine whether a child becomes overly anxious or develops the tools to cope with whatever is making them fearful.
Dos and Don’ts for dealing with children’s fears
1. Don’t pretend you are not afraid of things you fear. Children have radar for when the adults are lying — which makes them all the more fearful. Better to tell a child you have a silly fear and you are working on it.
Do deal with your own fears. An overly fearful parent will create an overly fearful child. If you are terrified of dogs, heights, ghosts, etc., chances are very good your child will be, too. If you know you have an irrational fear that is limiting you, you owe it to yourself as well as to your child to work on cutting it down to size. A mental health counselor can offer you important support and guidance for doing so.
2. Don’t try to talk your child out of an irrational fear. Kids (adults too) can’t be reasoned out of things that aren’t reasonable to begin with — at least not at first. Once the panic response sets in, you won’t get through with a reasonable argument.
Do recognize that your child’s fear is real, even if you think it is irrational. Validate your child’s feelings by acknowledging the fear. This lets him know that you are in his corner and that you are going to help him. That alone will bring his anxiety down a notch.
3. Do not ever belittle a child for being scared. Putting a child down only adds shame to the original problem. It’s important that parents view fears as an important opportunity for teaching, not as a character flaw.
Do emphasize your child’s strengths. Remind her of other things that she used to be afraid of but that she managed. Let her know you think she is strong enough to handle it.
4. Don’t distance from the child. Punishing a child for being afraid by walking away or isolating him in his room will increase his panic.
Do provide reassuring touch. When a small child’s fears are activated, words alone probably won’t be enough to calm her. Gently pull her close or take his hand. Physical contact lets the child know that you are offering protection. Your calm presence communicates that whatever is frightening is manageable.
5. Don’t rush to reassure if you are sure that the child won’t be harmed. An over-response on your part will have two unintended but unfortunate consequences: If you panic, the child will believe he has something to panic about. If you react with lots of hugs, words and fuss, she’ll learn that a sure-fire way to get your attention is to act afraid.
Do be supportive without going overboard. A child can only learn to master fears if they are supported in facing them.
6. Don’t avoid people, places and things that make your child anxious. “Protecting” your child in this way signals to him that there is something to be anxious about and that you don’t think he can handle the situation.
Do gradually reintroduce the feared issue. Expose the child to whatever she fears in small steps to teach her she can handle it. If she’s afraid of a big dog, for example: Read storybooks together about dogs. Play with a toy dog. Introduce her to a friend’s small, calm dog. Work up to petting a large dog.
7. Don’t ignore this important part of your child’s education. Learning to cope with unusual, unpredictable or frightening things is essential if our children are to feel empowered to take care of themselves. It’s our job to give our children the tools they need to assess risks, to approach a new situation with confidence and to cope with frightening things they cannot change.
Do purposefully work on helping your child be a resilient person. Read books together about kids who master fear. Teach relaxation skills. Encourage her whenever she draws on courage to do things. Help him distinguish between when being afraid tells us to be cautious and when it is just getting in the way of doing something new and exciting.