Fear is a big emotion for anyone to handle, and that’s especially so for children. It can be really hard for parents to see their children afraid, but parents can quickly wear out when their child’s fear drastically interferes with daily routines and activities.
So how can parents help their children when they’re afraid? Here are some things caregivers can do before, during, and after something scary shows up.
The list of things people can be afraid of has no end. Your child’s may not be on these lists, but here are some of the most frequent fears that children have, broken down by age.
- Ages 0-2: Strangers, unfamiliar settings, loud noises, objects coming toward them
- Ages 2-3: The dark, thunder, shadows, being separated from parents, changes to routine, potty training
- Ages 3-4: Animals (snakes, spiders, stinging bugs, dogs, etc.), bad dreams, recalling scary images
- Ages 4-5: Disappointing parents/teachers, getting sick or hurt, monsters in the closet or under the bed
As you can see, the fears kids have get more “sophisticated” as they get older. Babies are afraid of tangible things, toddlers start being afraid of the intangible, and pre-K kids become afraid of the future or imaginary things. Keep that in mind as you work with the fears within your own family — your baby probably isn’t afraid of the dark as much as they are an unfamiliar setting or being separated from you.
How to Help: Before
It may seem odd, but there is a lot you can do to preemptively keep certain common fears from being issues at all.
Using the list in the previous section, parents can begin to introduce their toddlers to potentially scary topics before they ever become an issue. Take the “mystery” out of the scary thing altogether by explaining that thunder can’t hurt them because it’s just the boom that comes after lightning. Or sharing that bees are often very gentle and, as long as we don’t bother them, they won’t bother us. That way, when your child has an experience with the thing that could be scary, they have an understanding of what that object or animal is. Suddenly, it’s not so scary.
This works with relation-based fears, too. Have your small child or baby interact with a stranger from the security of your arms or lap. Put your child down, walk out of eyesight, and then come right back. All of these activities show your child that they are safe and that mom, dad, or someone they love is always nearby when they need them.
How to Help: During
Despite all your efforts to get ahead of scary things, there will almost certainly be something that frightens your child. They may understand that stinging insects only sting when they feel threatened, but that probably won’t matter much to your child when they get stung by one. Or maybe one scary TV show or movie gets through your screening process, and now you’ve got a kindergartner who won’t sleep in their room by themselves.
Whatever the situation, here are some tips to keep in mind when you’re first addressing a new fear.
- Listen without judgment. Listening to your child about what they’re afraid of is easier said than done. That’s because kids can’t always articulate exactly what they are afraid of. Or they could be afraid of something that you think is silly. (Frogs? What’s scary about frogs?) Dr. Dehra Harris, a pediatric psychiatrist with Washington University at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, reminds parents to stop, listen, and ask questions before trying to solve problems. “When we’re parents, we’re using our wonderful parent brain and we’re solving it [the problem] too quickly for our kid.” So really try to listen and understand where the fear is coming from before jumping into fix-it mode.
- Include them in solving the problem. Instead of declaring how your child will manage their fear, ask them to help come up with some solutions. If they’re afraid of monsters under the bed, ask them what will chase the monsters away. Is it a night light? A magic spell that makes them disappear? A stuffed animal that will keep them safe? Including your child in finding a solution will help them address the fear with more confidence and a greater sense of control.
- Stay calm. Some fears will unfold before your very eyes. If a child is stung or bitten by an animal, watches something scary, or becomes separated from a parent, that incident could be the origin of a future fear. Be calm, loving, and supportive in the moment. Make them feel safe, and let them know they aren’t in any danger with you there. The last thing you want is to add the fuel of hysteria to the fear fire.
- Don’t dwell on it. It’s critically important to validate your child’s fear response … however, it’s equally as important to not dwell on the incident or the fear too much. The goal is to minimize the amount of headspace their fear takes up. Constantly talking about it or overly reassuring your child does the exact opposite.
How to Help: After
Now comes the hard part — follow-through. Faithfully addressing your child’s fear while also maintaining the patience to do it demands a lot. So here are some tips to help you do just that without feeling lost.
- Don’t belittle or dismiss your child’s fears. Whatever your daughter or son is afraid of — and no matter how silly or unbelievable it may be to you as an adult — the fear is very real to them. Belittling or dismissing their fear (“Oh, that’s nothing to be afraid of. You’re fine.” or “You’re being silly. No one is afraid of that.”) is the absolute wrong way to handle the situation. Making them feel ashamed or embarrassed for being afraid will only make it harder for you to address the fear productively.
- Expose, expose, expose. This is the hard part. Because talking about what scares your child will only go so far. They need to be exposed to their fears. This doesn’t need to be extreme. The “throw them in the deep end” mentality will only make your child distrust you, and that’s not helping anyone. Make sure a gradual increase in exposure is part of the plan you create to overcome their fear.
- Take it slow and be patient. Think about the fears you still have. How old are you? Remember that it’s going to take time for your child to be less afraid of the things that give them anxiety. Adjust your expectations, too. Your child may never be totally unafraid of bees. But if they can get to the point where they aren’t screaming and running away, isn’t that a win? That process — the ability to manage emotions and behaviors in a healthy way — is called self- regulation, and it’s the end goal for this entire process.
- Implement and fine tune your plan. As mom or dad, you play the part of life coach when it comes to facing fears. Your child is going to need your strength and follow-through on implementing the plan you both settled on when it came to addressing the thing making them anxious. That doesn’t mean you have to be outrageously stubborn, though. If the plan legitimately isn’t working, be the one to say, “Well, that didn’t work, huh? What if we did this instead?”
Watch Your Reactions
Last but not least, do a bit of self-reflection and see if the fears you have are affecting your kids. If your anxieties are unchecked, they can easily rub off on your children. Or as your kids age, they’ll begin to see when you aren’t practicing what you preach as it relates to fears and anxieties.
None of this means that you have to be fearless. All it means is that you as the parent also follow the process you expect your children to walk through when it comes to handling fears. It’s uncomfortable and hard to do, but your honest and brave approach to what makes you scared will do wonders when it comes to your child’s desire to overcome theirs.
As always, being a parent is an exercise in patience and humility. But in the end, the way you treat your fears will be the best example your child can look to as they navigate what makes them scared. And there won’t be anything holding them back if they also know they can come to you and talk about anything that’s making them nervous or scared.
The boogyman won’t have anything on you 🙂