“Mommy, there’s a monster under my bed. I’m scared!”
Children of all ages experience fear. And while it is heartbreaking for a parent to witness, it is a normal part of growing up.
Fears reveal themselves in different ways as our children age. Toddlers, for example, are afraid of separation from their parents, while a preschooler, who has an active imagination and a difficult time distinguishing between the real and pretend, fears things like that monster under the bed. As children gain the ability to discern between the real and the imagined, their fears turn toward actual things that might hurt them.
“What if a robber came into our house?!”
As parents, we never want our children to be in any kind of pain. Seeing them in fear is uncomfortable for us, so we want to do everything in our power to make those fears go away immediately.
While this sentiment is certainly understandable, the goal is not realistic. Trying to make the fears just disappear robs our children of one of the best tools we can give them – the ability to manage and cope with scary things on their own.
Helping Your Child Deal with Fear
By teaching your children how to manage their fears without your help, you are giving them the confidence to control their emotions and be less afraid on their own.
Self regulation is the most critical tool to achieving this goal. Self-regulation is a person’s ability to manage their emotions and behaviors, while resisting highly emotional reactions to upsetting situations. For kids – who are prone to tantrums and meltdowns – self regulation isn’t always easy. And they need your help to acquire these skills over time.
Most childhood fears don’t pose an immediate threat. The neighbor’s dog your child is afraid of probably won’t bite. And that monster under the bed we keep talking about isn’t coming out anytime soon. As a parent, this gives you the chance to help your children understand real and perceived threats and slowly guide them along as they develop their self-regulation skills.
Here are some tips to get started on your child’s journey to self regulation.
Talk about what is scaring them. Young children don’t have the verbal skills to fully articulate their thoughts and feelings. So, as a parent, it’s often difficult to fully understand their fears. Take the time to talk with your child. Ask questions about what scares them and why. Ask them about a specific experience they might have had that triggered this fear. The more exact you are, the better you will be able to understand the issue and help them deal with it effectively.
Show your children you’re taking them seriously. Sometimes — usually unwittingly — we tend to dismiss things our child says. We might use phrases such as “You’re just being silly” or “That’s nothing to be afraid of.” . But, remember, your children’s fears are real, and they need to know that you understand that. Validate their feelings. Show empathy And let them know in no uncertain terms that you are on their side.
Don’t dwell. While you certainly want your children to know that you take them seriously, it’s important to move on quickly from the conversation. Providing too much comfort can have negative effects as well. Instead, discuss ways in which you two can work as a team to help your children overcome their fears on their own.
Make a plan. Talk it out with your children to determine a step-by-step course of action that will help them manage their fears on their own. If your child wants to overcome his fear of the neighbor’s dog, maybe you both wave from afar on the first day. On the second day, you can approach it together. On the third you can pet it together. And on the fourth, you let your child give the dog a treat without you holding his hand. It’s a long process, but it’s worth it!
Encourage realistic thinking. Kids tend to think the worst is going to happen. Help them understand the realities of the situation they are so afraid of. Present evidence they can understand. “Our neighbor’s dog has never bitten anyone. Why would he bite you?”
Be patient. Becoming a self-regulated person takes time. Especially for children who are trying to overcome a fear for the first time. They need your support. They need your little nudges along the way. They need your reassurance that everything is going to be OK.