Dealing with Children’s Fears
My son can’t go to sleep, because he’s afraid of fire and burglars. Trying to reassure him doesn’t help. What else can I do?
Fear is normal. Having a healthy amount of fear without being overwhelmed by it keeps us alert. Children should learn that fear is a natural response to the unknown that can keep them safe. Yet, children’s fear can turn to panic if it’s dwelled upon or go underground if it is minimized or ridiculed.
It is important to acknowledge your children’s fears, no matter how implausible they may seem. We want our kids to feel comfortable coming to us as parents. Do not talk them out of their feelings.
Instead, teach your children simple safety measures to empower them to check things for themselves. For example, take the scared child on a tour of the home and together make sure the doors are locked and the stove is turned off. You may say something like “I’m glad you told me that you are scared. Once we’ve checked things are safe, you can let go of your fear.”
At times, children will not let go of their fear, and no amount of reassurance will soothe them. In fact, too much reassurance shows that the parent is in fact anxious, and anxiety is as contagious as an air-born virus. Mollycoddling typically perpetuates and increases children’s feelings of anxiety and vulnerability.
Part of parenting is helping children develop their own inner strength, which is like an inner parent. The inner parent is the part of a child that develops to stay calm in times of fear and uncertainty.
Change the Focus
After the fear has been acknowledged and dealt with, it helps to change children’s focus by reading a book, talking about something else, or doing math problems or riddles, and then leaving them to themselves. These are not manipulative distractions. On the contrary, children benefit from learning that when strong emotions, such as fear, get the upper hand, they can amplify other parts of their personality and thereby diminish the power of emotional, vulnerable parts. Having a “you’ll be fine” attitude helps them integrate that feeling themselves eventually.
I remember one evening, when I was a new mother, my three-month-old would not stop crying. After attempting to satisfy every need a baby could have, I randomly picked up a picture book and started reading to him. I was amazed when he instantly stopped crying. Reading the book changed our focus from stopping his crying to engaging his curiosity.
Tuning down Emotions, Not Turning them Off
We do want to remain in touch with our feelings—they are a great gift and the grist of life—but we don’t want to be overwhelmed or controlled by them. This is a careful balance that requires tuning down extreme emotions without turning them off.
Don’t Distract with Treats
It is vital not to create a distraction with treats or presents, which simply teaches the child to look to consumption to soothe his or her anxiety. Giving food or treats to a child every time he or she is upset creates a habit of consuming for the wrong reasons, and the child doesn’t learn to handle any stress or discomfort on his or her own.
Allowing the Child to Self-soothe
After initial attempts to calm the child, it’s important to allow him or her to be alone with some anxiety and learn to self-soothe. The ability to tolerate anxiety without panic or turning to consumption is a great gift we can impart to our children. Learning to handle some stress on their own after some initial reassurance will help them cope effectively with the inevitable difficulties of life.
We can role model this ability by being calm (not cold) when our children are scared. We also avoid creating a cycle of anxiety by not adding our own anxiety to the situation. We’ve all seen that when a parent panics when a child falls down, the child starts crying harder than before. Similarly, when a parent is overly-stoic and demands that a child to be tough, that reveals how uncomfortable the parent feels with any fear or vulnerability. A middle ground of caring calm is the most helpful.
9-11 and Bigger Fears
Several years now after 9-11, we remember the victims of terror. For some, the fear arising from previous and current calamities still lingers. Viktor Frankl’s approach to such frightful circumstances is to focus on the freedom to choose one’s attitude: “…Everything can be taken from a man but one thing; the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
My mother, who grew up in Germany during World War II, recalls spending many nights of her childhood in bomb shelters. “Everyone was afraid,” she says, “not just of bombs, but also of informers, and SS-men, who would come to search the house.”
When her best friend was killed in the air shelter, her world collapsed. Grief and terror seemed to be everywhere. One night, after struggling with that dark moment for weeks, she made a startling discovery: she did have some control over her life—not much—but some. No one but she was master over her mind. She realized that she could decide to focus on the happy moments of her life and to be kind to others. That realization changed her focus and her life.
Learning to deal with fear in a constructive manner is a healthy part of maturing. Children are not much different from adults. They have less knowledge and experience, but they have similar needs and feelings. Their fears, like ours, need to be acknowledged and respected, not swept under the rug. At times, their minds, like ours, need to be directed away from worries to another perspective in order to retain a sense of calm in the face of powerful emotions.
by Alison Poulsen, PhD