Fear in Children is normal
It is normal for kids to be fearful. We actually want them to develop a healthy level of fear and to be able to learn the dangers of the world and to be safe. We want them to stay away from the cleaning supplies, stay away from strangers, and to not run out into the street. Along the way though, kids develop fear that becomes problematic. An example is fear of the dark or sleeping alone. The child loses sleep and the parents lose sleep due to this fear, which just makes everyone cranky the next day.
What are kids afraid of?
Anything. Kids can associate fear with anything. The washing machine, food, dolls, thunder, using the toilet/potty training, and even a parent’s new hair style.
So how do kids learn to be afraid?
It all starts from infancy. We are born with an unlearned fear of loud noises. Loud noises activate the startle reflex. The startle reflex is a protective reflex that causes us to tense up and become more alert for possible danger. Other protective reflexes that can occur are eye blinking, coughing, gagging, vomiting, and diarrhea. These are biological defenses designed to eject and ward off anything that is harmful.
Fear is helpful for survival
At birth children are programed for survival. Common fears such as fear of the dark, fear of getting lost, and fear of being separated from a parent all work to deter the child from going to unfamiliar and possibly dangerous territory before they have developed the necessary skills to navigate these environments without their parents.
In the very early days of human kind it was not safe to sleep alone. Sleeping alone left you very vulnerable to being attacked and eaten by nighttime predators.
Children begin to realize their vulnerabilities and look to their parents for support. The natural survival instinct of not wanting to sleep alone now gets associated with ghosts and monsters under the bed rather than an actual danger from nocturnal predators.
Their fear continues to develop as they see scary things on TV, in movies, and hear scary stories from other kids at school. Even cartoons contain scary content. My son was afraid of the old Scooby Doo cartoon and would hide behind me when it got too scary. His twin sister, however, was not afraid of Scooby Doo cartoons and would tell her brother that it was not real.
Parents can help
As parents we sometimes unknowingly reinforce our child’s fear by enabling them to avoid sleeping alone, such as allowing the child to sleep in the parent’s bedroom or bed. This just confirms that the child’s bedroom is a dangerous place and the only safe place is the parent’s bed. They come to our bedroom at night because they need help with their fear.
Our kids look to us for security, so it is also important to monitor our own fear and anxiety. We can gently encourage our children to over-come their fear by creating opportunities for them to face their fear rather than avoid it.
It is important for us as parents to allow our children to venture out and encounter new situations and experiences. We need to be mindful of not imposing our own anxieties and fear onto our kids by limiting their exploration and experiences too much.
It is helpful when we are calm and containing when our kids are scared and upset. It is very easy to over-react when kids get scared and cry. Our over-reaction, though, just adds fuel to a potential fear.
6 Steps to a Less Fearful Child
1. Avoid “Avoiding.”
Don’t avoid dealing with your child’s fear and be careful that you are not enabling your child to avoid his fear either. Kids will normally want to avoid even talking about what they are afraid of. Avoiding only provides temporary relief. Avoidance falsely confirms that the danger is real and should be feared when it is not real. Avoidance ultimately maintains the fear.
2. Label the fear.
Help your child label her fear. Get her to name it and talk about what she is afraid of. This helps move her away from avoidance and toward being able to conquer her fear.
3. Validate, empathize, and normalize your child’s fear.
Let your child know that you understand his fear, you know how scary a fear can be, and that it is normal to be afraid. Sometimes it’s helpful to tell your child about a fear you had when you were his age and how you got over that fear.
4. Dispel the fear.
Without invalidating your child’s feelings, disconfirm the danger. Tell her that there are no such things as monsters. Vampires are not real. Explain what thunder is. “Thunder is the sound of the air heating up really fast when there is a storm. The air vibrates like a drum.”
5. Give your child a sense of control.
Help your child discover ways that he can have more control. Fear causes us to feel out of control and helpless. By finding ways your child can take more control of his environment or the situation, he will feel less helpless and more powerful.
A new flashlight and a fun book to look at or read is just one way of increasing your child’s sense of control for fear of the dark or sleeping alone.
Allowing your child take a stuffed animal, favorite toy, or a picture of you to their first day of preschool can also help him feel more powerful at defeating separation fears.
Teach your child skills such as deep breathing. “Take a deep breath, fill up your lungs, and hold your breath for a count of 2. Then forcefully blow the air out. Do this 5 times.”
Imagining a safe place. Where is this safe place? What and/or who would you bring with you to this safe place.
Help your child understand how powerful his thoughts are and have him count his scary thoughts or see how many funny thoughts he can have.
6. Face the fear.
The ultimate goal is for your child to be exposed to the fear. Now that your child has passed through the first 5 steps above, she can face her fear. With repeated exposure, your child will learn that there is nothing to be afraid of and that she can tolerate the fear. As the fear dissipates, your child will feel proud of herself, feel more confident, and she will have an easier time facing other fears.