How to Handle Your Kids Fears…
Ages Birth to Age 10
Infants and Toddlers
Play peek-a-boo. It will start to teach your baby that even when your face disappears, you’re still there. Easy concept to adults but to babies, it is a developmental stage and skills they will learn in time.
Leaving or exiting a room. Babies need to come to realize separation is temporary. Practice leaving the room for short periods at a time, so your baby can learn that you will always come back. Start with a minute, then, when your baby is ready, move up from there. When you are ready to leave them in the care of others, start with people they are familiar with for short periods, then work gently up from there.
Always say goodbye. Saying goodbye is the most important thing to do when you leave a baby or a child. Making a quick dash while they are distracted might make things easier in the short term, but it will risk your baby being shocked to find the parent is not there. When a parent disappears unexpectedly, and it also runs the risk of creating trust issues with children. Have your “Kiss and Bye” routine ready – tell them you’re leaving, a quick kiss, and let them know you’ll be back soon – or whatever works for you. It will be worth it in the long run.
Ages 2 to 10
Give them plenty of information. Even though kids at this age are aware of their environment, they don’t understand all the things that go on in it. Thunder feels scary – it’s unpredictable, it’s loud, and for a curious, powerful, inquisitive mind, it can surely feel as though the sky is breaking. For the child who is still getting used the world, it’s not so obvious that they won’t be sucked down the plughole when the bath drains. Point out what they can’t see. (‘Water fits down the plughole, but my arm won’t fit, neither will this boat, or the vacuum cleaner, or the car, or a hippo, or my foot, or my elbow. An ant would fit – wait – maybe that’s why ants don’t have baths! If I’m away from the plughole, nothing happens to me. See?’)
Talk, talk and more talk. Give them all the information they need to put their scary things in context, where they belong. There’s no such thing as too much talk and at this age, they’re so hungry to learn. Make the most of it. You’re their hero and if anyone knows how to make sense of things, it’s you.
Meet them where they are. Some kids will love new things, explore everything, will want to try to go with anyone and speak to everyone. Others will take longer to warm up. Unless it is a child who races towards the unknown has no sense of fear, introduce new things and people gradually. There’s so much to learn and kids do a wonderful job of taking it all in when they’re given the space to do it at their own pace. Too much brain overload, visual stimulation, physical stimulus, or too many new people can create a child to be overly tired, whiny, tantrum throwing, and unbearable. Have this in mind when going to family reunions, large loud birthday parties, and big events. Being prepared with food, snacks, toys, favorite blanket, familiar stuffed animal, binky, escape place, or any familiar object will help the child when the over-tired crankiness surfaces in the child, or yourself!.
Play. Play is such an important part of learning about the world. So much of their play is a rehearsal for real life. If your child fears something, introduce it during play. That way, they can oversee whatever it is they are worried about, whether it’s playing with the (unplugged) vacuum cleaner, being the monster, or having a “monster” as a special pet. Give them some ideas and the child generally will take it from there and create their own storyline. Using play can introduce a child to certain people, places, objects, or roles, giving them opportunity to use actions and words, making sense in their minds. Through play they can practice their responses, different scenarios, and get comfortable with scary things from a safe distance.
Overreaction. Panic, overreaction, or drama from a parent, adult, or caregiver is reiterating to the child that there is just cause in their fears. It’s important to validate what your child is feeling, but it’s also important not to overreact to the fear. If you run and scoop your child up every time they become scared, you might be inadvertently reinforcing the fear. Rather than over-comforting, get down on their level and talk to them about it after naming what you see – “That balloon scared you when it popped didn’t it?” and leave it alone. Kids constantly observe how others act and react to situations. Kids mirror feelings and actions, many times escalating what they observe to extreme levels. Staying calm reduces the height of escalation.
Avoidance. Most parents want to shield their kids from any fears they may be experiencing. Avoiding the person, place, or thing seems like the answer to the problem. Yes, ignoring, walking around, not looking, or not acknowledging the situation, person, or “thing” will make things easier in the short term, but in the long term will keep the fear well fed. The more something is avoided, the more that avoidance is confirmed as the only way to feel safe. It also takes away the opportunity for your child to learn that they are resilient, strong and resourceful enough to cope. It’s important for kids to learn that a little bit of discomfort is okay and that it’s a sign that they are about to do something brave – and that they have what they need inside them to cope.
Exploring Fears. Introduce the fear mildly, in a way that your child can feel as though they have control can work well if done correctly. If your child is terrified of the vacuum cleaner, explore it with them while it isn’t plugged in. If your child is terrified of dogs, introduce them to dogs in books, in a movie, through a pet shop window, behind a fence. Do this gradually and in small steps, starting with the least scary (maybe a picture of a dog) and working up in gently to the fear that upsets them most (patting a real dog). The more you can help them to feel empowered and in control of their world, the braver they will feel.
No excessive reassurance is needed! If your child has had a genuine fright or is a little broken-hearted, there is nothing wrong with giving them a hug and reassurance to steady the ground beneath them. When that reassurance is excessive though, it can confirm that there is something to be worried about. It can also take away their opportunity to grow their own confidence and ability to self-soothe. Finding the scaffold between an anxious thought and a brave response is something every child is capable of. Understandably, it can be wildly difficult to hold off on reassurance, particularly when all you want to do is scoop them up and protect them from the world that they are feeling the hard edges of. What is healthier, is setting them on a course that will empower them to find within themselves the strength and resources to manage their own fear or anxiety. Reassure them, then remind them that they know the answer, or lovingly direct them to find their own answers or evidence to back up their concerns. Let them know you love the way they are starting to think about these things for themselves.
Physical signs of fear. Fear can be exhibited in physical signs. Kids can have shaky hands, suck their thumbs or fingers and they might develop nervous little tics. When this happens, respond to the feelings behind the physical symptoms – fear, insecurity, uncertainty. Most parents can “read” their child and know when they are truly fearful. Observing the physical signs and attaching a feeling to them is helpful in children learning to identify and verbalize their feelings.
Tangible comfort. A special toy, blanket, doll, or stuffed animal may be a familiar addition to the family. Some kids are more tangible and will grow an attachment to a certain “thing”. A child will transition from this favorite “thing” in time and generally, the child will let you know, or the parent can assist with the transition. Security blankets will often be the bridge between the unknown and familiar and will form a strong foundation upon which they will build confidence and trust in their own capacity to cope with new and unfamiliar things.
Awareness of audio and visual stimulation. Awareness and limitations in what the child is watching, reading, or what is being read to them, is a must. Some kids will handle anything they see, and others will turn it into a brilliant but terrifying nightmare or vivid thoughts that become a little too pushy. Gaining insight into what the child takes away from a book, movie, cartoon, or television program will allow parents to limit or allow future interaction in each area.
Validation of feelings. Let them talk about their fears. The more they can do this, the more they will be able to make sense of the big feelings that don’t make any sense to them at all. Have them draw a picture or describe the feeling.
Milestones. Fears are proof that your child is learning more about the world, sharpening their minds, expanding their sense of the world and what it means to them, and learning about their own capacity to cope. As they experience more of the world, they will come to realize the things that seem scary aren’t so scary after all. Kids will learn that with time, understanding, and some brave behavior, they can get through the fear and come out on the other side…. just fine.