Fear in children is not new or uncommon, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to help a child overcome their fears.
As adults, it can be difficult to empathize with children who are afraid of monsters in the closet, swim lessons, or haircuts. And yet, anyone responsible for children has undoubtedly come face to face, at some point, with a child feeling afraid. And because we care about those children, we want to do whatever we can to help them move past those fears and live happier, braver lives.
But where do you even start? Many adults struggle to even manage their own fears, which often include problems we would consider more “serious” (things related to finances, relationships, safety, and death are among the most common adult fears). So, if adults can’t let go of their own fears, how are they supposed to help the children around them overcome theirs?
Understanding fear in children
Firstly, it can help to try to understand what fear looks like for children. Demystifying the problem can help clear the way for you and the child to work together to find a solution.
Fear in children is normal
It’s important to remember that fear in children is developmentally normal. In fact, one study reports that as many as 43% of children aged 6-12 have “many” fears or concerns.
Also, fear is a natural human instinct that actually serves an important purpose to humans, and has done throughout the species’ existence. The human race would not have lasted as long as it has without being afraid of predatory animals, poisonous foods, hostile environments, and other threats to survival.
When you look at it this way, your child’s fear of dogs (or the dark, or the ocean) doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with them; it just means that they’re human. Their survival instinct—that fight or flight response—is taking over, and their brain isn’t yet developed enough to be able to convince itself that it’s safe (that is, their “high road” neural pathways are not fully developed).
Fear is related to age
Chances are, you have grown out of many of your childhood fears. This happens within childhood as well. That is, a newborn’s fears are different from those of a 6-year-old, whose fears are different from those of a 10-year-old, and so on.
Science has revealed that we, like most mammals, are born with two innate fears: loud noises and falling. Every other fear, even those that are very common, is learned over time.
This can help as you educate yourself on developmentally appropriate fears of children your child’s age. It may also give you hope that what seems like an intense fear now may just be something they will grow out of.
Some of the most common fears in young children include:
- Loud noises
- Separation from their parents/caregivers
As children get older, their fears may change, or they may develop more fears. Older children are commonly afraid of:
- Being alone
- “Creepy crawly” animals (snakes, spiders, etc.)
- Getting into trouble
How to help
Now that you have a basic understanding of childhood fear, let’s discuss some simple things you can try to help a child overcome fear.
Identify and describe the fear.
If you’re going to help a child overcome a fear, you need to know what the fear is. Ask the child to tell you what they’re afraid of. Help them be as specific as possible:
“Are you afraid that the dog might bite you?”
“Do you think the dog is going to bark at you?”
“Are you worried that the dog might jump on you and push you over?”
Being specific will give you a better idea of the fear they’re facing. Yes-or-no questions like the ones above may be a good way to get the child talking, but also make room for them to give you any additional information.
Give fear a physical description.
Ask this question:
“What does fear feel like in your body?”
It can be difficult for children to recognize and identify feelings, including fear. This is why it can be useful to encourage them to slow down and think about how their body feels when they’re acting afraid; it externalizes the problem so that they can get a better “look” at it. Some common physical indicators of fear include a racing heart, a tight chest, butterflies in the tummy, a dry mouth, or breathing fast.
Validate the fear and offer hope
When children are feeling afraid, what they really need is someone to be there with them. They do not need someone telling them that their fear is silly, irrational, or crazy.
Don’t make fun of the child for feeling afraid, especially in front of other people. Instead, try saying things like:
“I used to be afraid of thunderstorms, too.”
“I can see why that scares you.”
“Everyone feels afraid sometimes.”
Once you’ve done this, it’s important to reassure the child, giving them hope that you are going to help them get through the fear.
“I’m right here.”
“I’m going to help you.”
“We’re going to get through this together.”
Both of these steps are important. Validation needs hope (or else the child may feel justified in their fear and feel like it’s never going away), and hope needs validation (or else the child may feel like you don’t actually understand or care).
Make a plan
Giving your child some actionable things to try will help them focus on something other than the fear. Talk to the child about some baby steps they might take that will help them eventually overcome the fear.
For example, if they’re afraid of the dark at bedtime, your plan might start, on night one, with the bedroom door open and the hall light on. Then, on the second night, you might close the door halfway. Next, you might try turning off the hall light, but adding a small nightlight in the bedroom, and so on.
Work together to come up with a plan that makes everyone feel comfortable while making clear progress toward the ultimate goal.
Teach (and model) the power of thoughts
Your thoughts have the power to shape your life. When you design your thoughts, so that they lead you to the life you want, you feel more in control and at peace.
One great way to do this is with affirmations—simple statements that can help to change the child’s mindset about themselves and the world around them.
Be encouraging and patient
Kids’ fears can be hard to deal with. For instance, it’s difficult to remain patient when your 5-year-old won’t go to bed because of the “spider under his bed” (been there).
That said, be patient with kids and their fears. Remember that they are not choosing the fear, and that fear is a human emotion that serves a purpose. As long as they’re able to identify and stay on top of their fear, they should, over time and with your help, be able to overcome it.
When there’s a more serious problem
Of course, there are times when a fear is more than a fear. These fears may be crossing the line into a phobia or disorder. For example, anxiety or panic disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, and specific, strong phobias are worth discussing with a doctor.
Look for these signs that a fear may require further attention:
- Tantrums or extreme behavior related to the fear to keeps occurring
- Fears that keep your child from engaging in everyday life (attending school, playing with friends, running errands with you, being apart from you at all)
- Severe physical symptoms (headaches, severe dizziness, difficulty breathing, or nausea)
- Fears accompanied by rituals or compulsions
- Panic attacks
At Design.org, we believe that you can design a life you love—and this is a powerful tool to teach your children as well.
Look at your child’s everyday or common fears as a way to teach them how to use their thoughts to overcome those fears. You’ll help them develop the skill of designing their thoughts that they can use for the rest of their lives.
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