Helping Children Cope With Their Fears

children trickotreatingSo here comes Halloween, with all the many scary images and experiences that children are exposed to. How many children become overwhelmed by the terror of believing some of the people in costume are real: the ghosts and witches and monsters. Trying to be logical often doesn’t work (“It’s okay, honey, it’s just make-believe!”). Being profoundly frightened can reverberate through a child’s body, leaving them momentarily or perhaps more significantly traumatized because they are overwhelmed by the possibility they will be hurt or killed by creatures who are out to get them.

There are certain ages and stages when children’s fears are more acute. In the classic book, The Gesell Institute’s Child Behavior From Birth to 10, the authors have a whole chapter dedicated to the ages and stages of fear.

They note that children who are two can be very fearful with many of the fears being auditory, such as the sound of trains, trucks, thunder, even the flushing of a toilet or the sound of a vacuum cleaner. 2 ½-year-olds are often afraid of changes spatially. They can almost panic when things they are familiar with around the house are moved or someone enters the house by a different door. Three-year-olds are fearful of the dark, animals, policeman and burglars. Four-year-old’s have auditory fears resurfacing, especially fears associated with fire engines. They also are afraid of the dark and wild animals and get upset when mom leaves, especially at night.

father hugging childFive-year-olds are not as fearful, but still have some fears, such as fear of the dark. Six-year-olds on the other hand are very fearful, especially around sounds. They also have the fear of the supernatural and often fear that someone is hiding under the bed. They can be very fearful of things like splinters, small cuts and blood, especially their own. Seven-year-olds interpret shadows as ghosts and witches and are beginning to worry about things like not being liked and being late to school. As the years go on, older children begin to have more social fears, worrying that they are disliked or will be rejected by their peers.

The Gesell Institute provides some very practical suggestions for what to do, or not, when a child is afraid. Here are some not to do:

  1. NEVER make fun of a child’s fears, minimize, discount or shame a child, even when you don’t fully understand them.
  2. Don’t force a child to “face” things they fear before they are ready, unless you are very sure they can handle it. (They add the side comment that parents seldom will be absolutely sure.)
  3. Don’t be impatient and treat a child as if they were babyish because they are afraid.
  4. Don’t assume that their fears are your fault or the child’s fault. Appreciate the developmental aspects of fear, how normal fear is for children.

child smiling Here are some of the recommendations of what to do when a child is afraid:

  1. Respect a child’s fears. Treat even what may seem silly to you as very real to your child. Put words to those fears. “You are very afraid to go to our friend’s house because of their dog. Dogs are scary to you right now.”
  2. Help children come up with a plan to manage fearful things. “Let’s think about some of the ways we can make sure you are safe. I have some ideas but first let me hear what you think. We can even write them down.” If the fear is so overwhelming, sometimes a parent needs to acquiesce in order to prevent a child from being totally overwhelmed by their fears.
  3. Realize that children outgrow most of their fears.
  4. Provide opportunities for a child to gradually get used to fearful situations, over time. Let the child see videos of friendly dogs on YouTube interacting with children. Take walks where adults often have dogs on leashes but staying far enough away that your child can simply observe. Let your child play with a small puppy. Introduce a child to a dog who is very child friendly and won’t do anything scary, like jumping up or barking loudly.
  5. With things like Halloween costumes and scary decorations, it is not necessary to force children to experience these. Knowing they will eventually outgrow these fears, think about ways to keep the Halloween experience safe for them. Host a Halloween party at your house with only friendly costumes allowed. Make sure – if you do go out for Halloween – that you only go to houses where there aren’t scary things jumping out from behind bushes. Be willing to take your child home if and when they get overwhelmed. Talk about how you had fears when you were younger and that fears are something people often outgrow. They just need the time to learn how to feel safe.

The time comes when children begin to feel braver and then are proud of themselves because they can now manage their fears. By a safe parent who understands and respects their fears. Invite your child to gradually learn that the world isn’t quite as scary as they are imagining. Teach them that they have the ability to manage their fear and will be able to handle fearful situations with greater confidence over time.

Invitation to reflect:

  1. What do you recall that caused you to be afraid when you were a child? Consider whether some of your experiences might make for inspiring stories you can share with your child.
  2. What have you observed in terms of your child’s fears? How can you make sure your responses are respectful and appreciative?
  3. If your child has something major he or she is afraid of, what are some strategies you can use to empower your child to feel safer, to have a strategy in place and to know that you, as the parent, will be there to walk through their fearful situation with him or her?
  4. If you want to take a much deeper dive into understanding the nature of fear, check out the following:
    Memories of Fear: How the Brain Stores and Retrieves Physiologic States, Feelings, Behaviors and Thoughts from Traumatic Events
    Bruce D. Perry, MD, PhD