How to Help Children Conquer Fears
Unlike adults, it is far less likely for children to rationalize their fear and admit that it may be excessive or unreasonable, because of this, they feel them intensely and personally. It is also more likely for children to develop temporary fears as a natural and normal part of growing up rather than due to a traumatic event that may stunt their cognitive long-term growth.
Navigating these meandering fear-laden waters can be tough on parents who fear that their children are succumbing to scarring phobias that may limit their lives and potential as adults.
In this article my chief objective is to help parents know what can be considered a normal array of fears, when to draw the line and how to break negative cycles that may arise without projecting our fears as parents onto our kids.
The Age Of Fear
Between the ages of two and six children are particularly fearful, and it is easy to become overly apprehensive as parents. During this time, kids begin to empathize and interact with world, and are prone to confusing reality with fantasy. The following is a list of a normal array of fears for young children to be on the look out for:
- Fear of monsters, darkness and animals.
- Abandonment, strangers and death (including injury).
- Loud sounds, discipline and bedtime.
As children age their tendency to relate to fantasy diminishes, and by the ages of eight to eleven, the array of fears will take a decisive shift toward the social (rejection, shyness e.t.c). These are considered normal behavioral fear patterns that should not be met with firm correction, but with reassurance instead. In most cases, the majority to fear for children is a product of sudden change. Maintaining calm and consistent feel around the house is a great way to passively ease childhood fear.
Easing The Stress Of Normal Fears
Prevention, as they say, is better than curing. There are a number of steps that can be taking that will go a long way in helping children deal personally with the onset of fear.
- Develop a routine - As previously discussed, a degree of structure and predictability gives children a sense of passive calm and security.
- Try and relate - Instead of dismissing the fear as childish, try and view it as they do. While it may seem logical for a parent to give the example by dismissing a particular fear, it is more effective to discuss it on-a-level with the child and allow them to reason their own way out of it.
- Reversing associations - Use play as a way of turning something fearful into something which also has a fun element to it. If a child is scared of abandonment, developing a routine of playing hide and seek can, over-time, help reduce it's impact. The reason is that being alone is now also associated with a game, and not only grief. The child will learn through experience, that seeking solitude can also be rewarding (winning the game).
- Don't project your worry onto them - It is important to always remain apparently strong, children look to their parents to assess many of their own fears. An anxious, angry or fearful parent will exacerbate their own fear and reinforce it. When a child falls over, for instance, the first thing they will usually do is look at their parents to see if it is "bad". A parent who smiles and reassures their child will almost always provoke a better response than a startled exclamation of concern. It is common for children to cry in response to the fear in our own responses, rather than out of any real pain.
- Affection - The only thing more productive than spending time with children is spending affectionate time with them. Affection will help cement a healthy amount of self-esteem and will have a lasting effect on how well they are able to synthesize fear.
Signs To Look Out For
This is a subjective list of symptoms that may mean (if persistent) that a particular phobia is becoming more harmful than it needs to be.
- A marked decrease in appetite.
- Persistent headaches.
- Persistent nightmares.
- Recurring bed-wetting.
- Overly stubborn behavior.
- Constant irritability and anger.
- Slurring or stuttering.
- A palpable change in communication.
When To Intervene
When unresolved stress begins to affect the well-being (not only mental) of our children, it is time to take more direct action. If your child is demonstrating worrying reactions to fear (especially if they appear to be disabling), it may be time to visit a doctor in order to rule out some common anxiety conditions that may not resolve without external help.
If you are sure or have ruled out that pre-existing conditions are the root cause, it is time to start interacting with your child by gently confronting the phobia in question. For instance, let's assume that a child is absolutely petrified by the household cat. We can turn the fear into a game, very gently. We can have someone hold that cat at a comfortable distance, and then progressively bring it closer and offer increasingly appetizing rewards along the way until they touch. Repeated contact has a numbing effect over time, and we can become immune to certain fears if we are repeatedly confronted by them.
It is important to realize that not all phobias will disappear of their own accord, no matter how good a parent you are. If the fear is worsening or showing no signs of easing as time goes by, consider discussing the episode with a therapist who will be undoubtedly more beneficial to you than I!