How to handle your child’s fears
Editor: Anna Taylor
I am a teacher, and the other day I watched a wonderful assembly that was the starting point for a unit of work on ‘Conquering Fear Stories.’
The teacher started off by asking the children and teachers to share their fears: the dark, spiders, snakes, flying, rats, heights, confined spaces – there were so many different fears in the hall.
Only a few of the fears were rational – based on a real danger that poses an actual threat to us. Lots of them were irrational – fears of things that pose no real threat or a fear of something that is highly unlikely to happen.
Once we had all shared our fears, we were shown a video of Gino D’Acampo conquering his fear of spiders in an episode of I’m a Celebrity. Watching the enormous spiders crawl over his face sent a shiver down many spines in the room – even for those of us who thought we didn’t mind spiders!
Common childhood fears
For younger children, the lines between fantasy and reality are still blurred, so irrational fears are more common.
The most common fears for two to four-year-olds range from loud noises and being left alone, to bed wetting, monsters and ghosts, and disabled people.
Four to six-year-olds are also scared of darkness and imaginary monsters, but can also have more rational fears such as losing a parent, death or injury.
Beyond these ages, irrational fears decline rapidly, with older children tending to worry more about death and related topics, such as nuclear war or terrorism.
Is there a difference between boys and girls?
Up to age eleven boys and girls are equally represented in the ‘fear tables’, but after eleven years boys lose (or, at least, appear to lose) their fears more rapidly than girls.
However, this could be due to stereotypes (boys are ‘wimps’ if they get scared), so it’s still worth checking in on your son as he may have anxieties he’s trying to hide.
Should we cater to fears, or face them head on?
If a fear doesn’t affect your child’s daily life, it may be worth just leaving it – your child will probably just grow out of it as they mature.
But sometimes the fear means that the child misses out on things: a child that is scared of dogs may avoid going to the park, or a child who doesn’t like the dark may miss out on sleepovers.
If your child’s fear causes distress or anxiety or leads to them missing on valuable life experiences, it’s better to deal with it while they are young. You can try these four steps to handle your child’s fear (adapted from Kid’s Health):
- Recognise that the fear is real. As trivial as a fear may seem, it feels real to your child and it’s causing him or her to feel anxious and afraid. Avoid belittling the fear, even as a way to get your child to overcome it – saying, “Don’t be ridiculous! There are no monsters in your closet!” may get your child to go to bed, but it won’t make the fear go away.
- Support your child, but don’t cater to fears. If your child doesn’t like dogs, crossing the street deliberately to avoid one will just reinforce that dogs should be feared and avoided. Instead, provide gentle care as you approach the feared object or situation with your child.
- Rate the fear in an age-appropriate way. Younger children might be able to describe how ‘full with fear’ they are, with ‘up to my knees’ as not so scared, ‘up to my stomach as more frightened, and ‘up to my head’ as truly petrified. Older children can rate the intensity of the fear on a scale of one to 10. This helps you understand how your child is feeling and monitor it as the situation changes. It also encourages your child to visualise the intensity of the fear and perhaps see that the fear is less intense than first imagined.
- Cope by using strategies learned ahead of time. Relaxation techniques are helpful, including visualisation (of floating on a cloud or lying on a beach, for example) and deep breathing (imagining that the lungs are balloons and letting them slowly deflate). You could also teach your child some positive self-statements (such as “I can do this,” and “I will be OK,”) to say to themselves when feeling anxious.
Whether your child’s fear is rational or irrational, a fear is a fear – what seems trivial to you may be a huge source of anxiety for your child. Helping your child overcome something they are scared of doesn’t just mean getting over that specific fear; it also gives them a sense of control so they can become more resilient in the long term.
Tags: children, fear, Halloween, kids
This post was written by Claire Gillies