Do you remember being scared of the dark? Or were you more frightened of hairy spiders, painted clown faces, monsters under the bed, or sharks in the pool? Most of us remember battling some kind of childhood fear (and for some these fears continue on through to adulthood!)
Feeling scared is a normal part of childhood. Fear can be a useful emotion that helps children understand risk, evaluate threats and manage their emotions. Some sense of fear is good when it comes to navigating real-life dangers as it helps protect children from harm. For example: crossing the road or being aware of stranger danger are both situations where children might feel more cautious due to their fear, but children can often be fearful of situations or objects that most adults don’t find threatening. It is important that children are able to deal with their fear with support from Parents or Caregivers.
Common Fears in Early Childhood
When something is new, big loud or different it can seem scary at first. When children grow and reach new stepping stones in life their fears may change or develop and they may often find themselves in situations that require them to be pushed out of their comfort zone and experience something new.
KidsHealth have identified some common types of fears that children often experience at different stages of their development:
- Infants may cry when they meet a stranger and are unable to recognise their face
- Toddlers between the ages of 10 months and 2 years may experience separation anxiety and fear being away from parents and caregivers
- Most young children fear “pretend things” as they can struggle to differentiate between fantasy and reality. To a child, it can seem very plausible that the scary monster they saw on TV is waiting for them under the bed.
- Fears of the dark, monsters, loud noises and nightmares tend to be more common between the ages of 4 and 6
- As children get older, they begin to fear more real-life dangers. Some children may fear that a “bad guy” is in the house or experience anxieties about real events that could happen, such as natural disasters, getting hurt or losing a loved one. School age children may also feel anxious about school work, grades, or fitting in with friends.
Experiencing fears and phobias is a normal part of childhood. Most children experience them, and for most they pass with time. However, dealing with them in the moment can be stressful for both you and your child.
Helping Your Child Overcome Their Fears
Does your child hide behind the couch during a thunderstorm, cry when they meet a stranger, or refuse to sleep with the light off? When these fears rear their heads, our natural instincts are to soothe and comfort. No parent wants their child to feel afraid or upset, and you may find yourself wanting to relieve their anxiety and fear over a scary situation quickly. Fortunately, there are a variety of ways to help your child not only face their fears, but conquer them!
Calm and Revisit
When we are afraid our ‘fight or flight’ response is activated, which can cause an exaggerated feeling of fear and danger. A child in ‘fight or flight’ mode is impervious to logic and reason; in the moment they are unable to see that there is no real threat.
The first step to dealing with a frightened child is to help them feel safe again. Once your child is calm, then you can revisit the situation. Try to understand your child’s perspective and what made them feel scared. Was your child afraid that if they swam into the deep end of the pool, a shark could be lurking there?
Saying something like “Wow, if you thought a shark would be waiting in the deep end, I can see why you would be scared! But sharks don’t live in swimming pools” is a great way to relieve a child’s anxieties about a situation while also validating their emotions.
Be Patient and Encouraging
When dealing with a scared or anxious child, it’s important to be patient, empathetic and let them confront their fears at their own pace. Talk to your child about their fears, reassure them that you are there for them and encourage them to deal with their fears in their own way and in their own time.
If your child takes a step towards confronting their fears, praise them. A nice idea might be to even create a ‘certificate’ or reward to give them when they do something out of their comfort zone.
Let your child take the lead
While it’s important to let your child know that you’re there for them, it’s also important for children to feel a sense of control over their situation.
Giving your child an element of control in the management of their fear can help them feel safe. For example, if they are afraid of intruders in the night, make shutting and locking their bedroom window one of their night-time responsibilities.
Answer their questions
Although childhood fears can be based on imaginary or exaggerated perceptions, that doesn’t mean they aren’t a very real experience for your child. Encouraging your child to ask questions about their fear can help them to understand or even rationalise what they feel. If you don’t know all the answers, invite your child to research and find out together.
There are many resources out there to assist you in teaching your child how to deal with feeling afraid. Seek out age-appropriate children’s books, toys and movies with characters and storylines that deal with overcoming fears and being brave.
Lead with curiosity
There’s a saying that knowledge is power, and this can be true when confronting our fears. Sometimes learning about things that scare us can help to ease our fears by giving us a sense of familiarity and control. For example, if your child is afraid of spiders and bugs, you might say “not all bugs and spiders can hurt us. Why don’t we find out which ones are safe, and which ones might be dangerous?” Explaining that bites and stings are a defence mechanism for a lot of these critters because they themselves are scared may also help a child rationalise why bites or stings may occur and creates an ability to discuss the measures we can put in place to try and prevent being bitten or stung.
Take small steps
Most people overcome their fears through gentle exposure, and this is also true for children. A powerful strategy for working through fears with your children is called the Stepladder approach – which is a step-by-step approach to helping children gradually face and overcome their anxieties.
Reassure your child that you aren’t going to make them do anything they don’t want to do and that they can say no or stop at any time. For example, you might start to overcome your child’s fear of spiders by first looking at pictures of spiders together. Explain that you are only going to look at pictures for now, and that you can stop at any time. Once your child is comfortable with this, you can move on to a slightly harder activity, such as watching a video of a spider, or looking at a spider in its web from a safe distance.
With calm, understanding, the right support and a little time, children can overcome almost anything. Helping your child face and overcome their fears will help them grow in immeasurable ways, building their confidence, independence and resilience with every little step.
“You’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think” – Christopher Robin