Help Your Child Overcome Childhood Fears
"Mom. Come here, now," my 3-year-old urgently whispers as he pulls me toward the yard. "Red eyes," he says, shivering with fear. "Red eyes."
My son believes we have a monster downstairs, but only at night when we are upstairs. Other monsters live in bushes at the back of our yard, where they feast on stray baseballs and Frisbees. That is why he is worried now. I am called in to retrieve the ball he has lost. I grab the ball and run back to him as if I've narrowly escaped. "Monsters are just pretend," I say.
A big, scary world
As their understanding of the world increases, so do kids' fears. Infants may be fearful of separation or loud noises, and those fears may stick with kids into the toddler years. But as their experiences and imaginations grow, toddlers may also become afraid of particular animals or insects, costumed characters and things that lurk in the dark. They may also fear they'll be sucked down the toilet or the bathtub drain, despite your constant reassurance that they won't.
At Halloween time, kids' everyday fears may be overshadowed by anxious reactions to people in scary costumes and fears of ghosts, monsters and zombies. Difficulty separating reality from fantasy is common in preschoolers, and school-aged kids aren't immune. Hollywood movies with vivid depictions of werewolves and vampires can cause the most concrete, fact-oriented thinkers to wonder what lurks beneath the stairs.
"Anxious thinking — for all of us — is notoriously distorted, exaggerated and unreliable," notes Tamar Chansky, psychologist and author of Freeing Your Child from Anxiety: Powerful, Practical Solutions to Overcome Your Child's Fears, Worries, and Phobias. But don't dismiss your child's fears as childish or irrational. Confronting even the silliest scary scenarios helps kids learn to deal with real-life woes and worries.
Fight fears together
When your daughter shrieks and clings to your leg because the neighbor's dog bounces her way, embrace the teachable moment. Parents can help kids confront fears so they don't grow bigger and scarier.
* Respect feelings. Fear feels uncomfortable. Your child's heart is racing, her palms are sweaty, and she wants to escape to safety. Be her ally and accept her anxiety. If she isn't ready to pet the snake at the zoo or sleep without a nightlight, don't push it.
* Word up. Kids can't always express what scares them, especially when the body's fear response is energizing them to fight or flee. Help your child identify specific concerns using age-appropriate words. Ask, "What is it about the dog that worries you?" or "What might happen when the lights are off?" You can't devise monster-slaying strategies if you don't know the enemy.
* Do reconnaissance. Fear festers when imaginations get the best of us. The more your child learns about the feared situation, the less powerful his imaginary thoughts will be. Hold hands while you both check the basement for monsters. Go online and read about snakes together. Learn how self-flushing toilets work. Knowledge is power.
* Talk back. Encourage your child to argue against the frightening thoughts or to repeat a calming phrase such as, "I am fast and strong. Ghosts can't catch me!" Talking back shrinks scary thoughts.
* Take baby steps. "The best way to face a fear is a little at a time, from a safe distance," says marriage, family and child therapist H. Norman Wright, author of Helping Your Kids Deal with Anger, Fear, and Sadness. Face a fear of heights by imagining the scary situation first. Then move to climbing a low structure, followed by a taller one, and so on. Give high-fives as kids conquer each challenge.
* Be there. Kids need to know you'll stick with them when they face their fears. Don't let your own distress or embarrassment cause you to shut down or disappear. "Research indicates it takes about 20 minutes for the anxiety to subside when a fear is confronted," Wright says. Work toward this goal with your child.
Be afraid, but not too afraid
Fear is essential for survival. It helps us escape dangerous situations. But if your child's fears keep her from engaging in everyday activities, it may be time to seek professional help. Some kids' fear systems are much more sensitive than others. Anxious kids may be trapped in a whirlwind of fearful thoughts, and paralyzed by nagging "what ifs." According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 13 percent of children are affected by anxiety disorders, which include phobias, panic disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Talk with your pediatrician or school psychologist if your child's fears are overwhelming you both. n
Heidi Smith Luedtke is a psychologist turned freelance writer and mother of two.