Fearlessly Forward: Parents Managing Children’s Fears
The activities on this blog assume that you are monitoring your child’s interests and are prepared to jump in with follow-up questions and ideas for extending exploration. Recent posts on spiders, frogs, stinging insects and the heart, assume that your child has shown interest in and is comfortable with talking about, observing, and maybe even touching these animals and things. At the very least, we assume you are not going to launch into these informal lessons if your child is terrified.
The pursuit of scientific understanding can mean exposure to things that are yucky, scary, and unpleasant. Monitoring your child’s tolerance and reactions is part of determining how to guide his curiosity. Fear is a healthy, protective response and a little bit of discomfort can motivate learning. Opportunities to experience fear, to stand up to what is making you afraid and manage uncomfortable feelings are essential in building resources and confidence. We want kids to learn they can be scared and be okay because they can cope. We want this for our children, but their expressed fears challenge our own sense of effectiveness as parents in providing reassurance and a sense of security.
Can you think back to when and what sorts of things were scary for your child? Maybe you remember when your child was a toddler. Instead of the happy, contented baby in her crib at night, fears related to things hiding in the dark became marked. Around the age of four, magical things that were once associated with rainbows and unicorns begin to assume wicked, unpredictable, and potentially cruel auras. Among school-aged kids, their fears are more likely to be rooted in reality –natural disasters, bodily injury, animals, guns, bullying, and punishment.
Elementary school children report more fears than preschool aged children although parents report more fears among the younger group. This finding suggests that some parents may not be aware of the fears their school-aged children are harboring.
Aside from an experience of a traumatic event triggering fears, the typical sequence for the emergence of new fears tends to correspond with the development of new cognitive skills. We are frequently reminded that young children’s brains are undergoing dramatic growth. Not just physical growth, but around the ages of one, four, and five to seven, we also see evidence of dramatic cognitive shifts. New and more sophisticated ways of thinking become apparent in solving problems and tackling new subjects. These cognitive changes open up new horizons in learning, better awareness of the world around us, and inflate imaginations. Correspondingly these cognitive advances open possibilities for being frightened.
Another common theme in this blog is that direct instruction (for example, just telling or explaining) may be less constructive in building knowledge than hands-on activities, trial and error, use of the senses, experimentation, and repeated exposure over time. The same is true for handling fear. You cannot talk children out of a fear or fix it for them. You also cannot force them to face it.
Approach fears as you would the other activities described here. First, just as you are monitoring what your child is interested in, you should be observing him for clues about what is a fearful response and what incited it. Repeatedly we have asked you to take a child’s questions and interests seriously, following up with engagement or discussions. The same advice applies for fears. Once noticed, make sure you are present (not distracted) and provide company and reassurance; but not the kind of reassurance where you say everything is alright or there is nothing to be afraid of. Take the expression of fear seriously. The expressed fear may sound irrational, but from your child’s perspective, it is very real. Talk about the fear, ask questions and guide your child to look for information or solutions that may help in dealing with it. If the fear is interfering with these processes, then wait a bit, returning to the problem when your child has settled down. (If the fear is intense, persistent and interfering with day-to-day activities, you may be dealing with a phobia and will need professional help. Fears are common in childhood; phobias are not).
As with other topics, revisit a discussion of fear, building solutions incrementally. Take small steps and offer praise when you recognize that your child is saying or doing something to acknowledge or cope with the fear. Although it’s helpful, praise is not enough. Only through practice will he develop the skills to comfort himself.
Play is an important context to explore fears and practice ways to manage them, as long as the play partner is trustworthy and won’t capitalize on the fear for their amusement (think siblings). Role modeling is another technique commonly suggested. If your child has a fear of dogs, invite her to play a mean dog. You can show her some strategies you are using to manage the dog and your fear.
As a final note, fears can be learned from parents. If your child shows an interest in something that perhaps you are feeling some anxiety about, maybe it is time to fess up to your fear and forge ahead in exploring those spiders and snakes. Let your child know that everyone, even you, gets scared sometimes. If you talk out loud, sharing your thoughts and coping strategies, maybe even having some fun at your own expense, you are doing your child a big favor in acknowledging her interests, being a companion in exploration, in addition to providing a lesson in emotion management.