Fear is a normal emotion for kids and adults alike. It happens when a person foresees a potential threat - and even if the danger isn't present, the thought of this object or idea can cause anxiety and stress. If your little one is experiencing childhood fears, there are ways to help them overcome the distress that surrounds these concepts.
Start with understanding how fear can impact a child, and then try some of these simple strategies to help kids deal with and even potentially overcome their fears.
Common Childhood Fears
Fear can be both learned and innate. For instance, a child's fear of the dark stems from their inability to see what is around them. This makes them feel vulnerable, which is an emotion that most young kids don't know how to articulate. This is an innate fear that stems from the desire to stay safe and in control.
In contrast, if your child had a bad experience at the doctor's office or had to undergo multiple surgeries as a toddler, they may associate the doctor with pain. Since they don't understand that these incidents were isolated, this learned fear becomes applied to all doctors and the places they work.
While some child fears and anxieties are more common at certain ages (toddlers, for example may commonly be afraid of loud noises; preschoolers may be afraid of the dark; school-age children may tend to be afraid of snakes and spiders) every child is different, and various fears can surface at different times.
Generally, though, some of the typical childhood fears to watch out for in young kids include:
- Spiders / Bugs
- Large animals
- The unknown
- Being alone
- Loud noises
- Moving play structures (swings, bounce houses, etc.)
While most parents want their kids to be brave, fear isn't always a bad thing. It can protect us from real danger. You want your child to have a healthy understanding of when fear is a warning and when it is unwarranted. For example, you don't want your child to be afraid to cross a bridge, but cliff diving isn't something most parents want their kids doing either.
How Do Fears Affect a Child's Development?
Everyone experiences fear. It's a normal part of life. Typical childhood fears, both real and imagined, are something that accompany a child's development. For instance, when a child's sensory system has not fully matured, loud noises and abrupt movements may trigger them. These are fears that they will outgrow.
In contrast, Harvard researchers have found that "exposure to circumstances that produce persistent fear and chronic anxiety can have lifelong consequences by disrupting the developing architecture of the brain." These include a child's ability to socialize, learn, and interact in the world. They can have detrimental effects on both their mental and physical health. Most of these are extreme cases that are associated with exposure to violence or abuse, a handful of traumatic events like the death of a close family member or an animal attack, or suffering from a severe illness.
For those children who experience trauma in early childhood, there is good news. They can unlearn these fears. However, the research notes that this can only occur in later years, when specific structures of the brain have matured.
Alternately, for the kids who experience common childhood fears, there are effective ways to help them cope more immediately and even overcome these trepidations. The healthiest approach is for parents to address these fears head on.
Eight Successful Methods for Helping Kids Overcome Their Fears
Fear is a powerful thing, but you don't have to let it get the better of your child. Try these simple techniques to help them conquer their fears and regain control.
1. Acknowledge the Child's Fear and Provide Comfort
When someone is upset, the most important thing that a person can do is recognize that individual's feelings and relate to their experience. You should never belittle or tease a child for opening up about their concerns. Knowing that someone else is there for them in a time of need and has similar concerns can bring great relief to a fearful child.
However, you should not dwell on the fear, either. This can make it worse. Instead, talk about it in a constructive manner. Overcoming fears in kids can start with acknowledgement and validation of their feelings.
2. Talk About Their Fears - and Yours
What scares you? Think about that for a minute. Once you come up with an answer, how do you calm those fears when they arise? By answering these questions, you can more effectively help your child. Talk openly with them about the things that make you worry or feel stressed and how you make those feelings go away. If you are vulnerable, they are more likely to do the same.
Also, take the time to acknowledge that we don't always have control of our surroundings, but we can control our actions and responses. Then, use your imagination!
Interestingly enough, a study on fear and imagination showed that by talking out potential scenarios, you can diminish your fears. More specifically, by imagining future events and their possible outcomes, you will feel better prepared when they actually occur. That means sitting down with your kids and asking them real and rhetorical questions to help facilitate change. Let's pretend that dogs are your child's fear.
- How do you feel when you see a dog?
- Why do you think you feel this way?
- Was a dog mean to you when mommy wasn't around?
- What do you think a dog would do if it got near you?
- Do you know what to do when a dog growls at you?
- Do you know how to get a dog to go away?
As they answer, provide actionable advice while validating their emotions.
3. Implement Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy
This technical term sounds expensive, but it is actually something you can do at home. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is like micro-dosing. In a controlled environment, you expose your child to their fear for short periods of time. This helps to lower their anxiety and helps them feel more confident when the trigger arises.
For instance, if your child has a fear of dogs, call a local dog trainer to locate a therapy dog for your child to interact with regularly. Let your child know about this meeting and talk about how it will help them conquer their fear. Start off small and do it in a familiar environment.
For their first meeting, just have the dog in the room with them and give them control of the situation. If they never approach or pet the dog in the first few meetings, that's okay. The goal is to let them see that not all dogs are dangerous. Over time, work towards having your child approach the dog, sit with the dog, and then pet the dog.
4. Teach Kids Skills to Combat Their Fear
Continuing with the dog example, if your child does not know how to properly approach or interact with a dog, they may find their fears becoming realities. Take the time to educate your child on proper animal etiquette. The same goes for a fear of water. If you invest in swimming lessons, you give them back the control they crave. This takes away the power behind the fear, making it meaningless.
5. Provide Kids With a Warning
If you know that specific things, such as loud noises or high views scare your child, give them a heads up if you know they are coming! This goes back to the potential scenario technique. By knowing something is coming, your child can mentally prepare for the moment, allowing them to better control their anxiety.
6. Be Honest With Your Child
The world is a scary place - and parents can't always control everything that happens around their child. As your child gets to elementary age, they will become much more perceptive to situations around them. Take the time to have open and honest conversations. Talk about things such as death and severe illness. Talk about violence.
While you want to shield your child from these awful topics, they are important and these discussions can help prepare your child for the future. This can also serve as a great opportunity to stress the benefit of taking care of yourself and how to be safe in different situations.
7. Give Them Tools to Face Their Fears
Sometimes determining exactly what the fear is and giving your child a tool can help. For example:
- Is your child scared of the dark? Get them a night light.
- Are they nervous during thunderstorms? Put together an emergency kit for severe weather situations and determine where your safe room is located.
- Is your child fearful of visiting the doctor? Bring them along to your appointments. Let them watch you get examined and get your yearly vaccinations. While you can't take the pain out of all visits, you can lead by example. Explain why these visits matter and how the alternative of getting sick is worse.
- If bugs are the issue, spray your home to help limit their presence. Also, research the critters in your area. If your child knows the bugs are not poisonous, then it removes some of the concern.
- If they are having nightmares or are fearful of monsters, have them draw their demons. This can help you see what they are imagining and determine the real source of their fear.
8. Use Positive Reinforcement to Help Reduce Fear
Even if they don't completely overcome their fears, if they take the brave step of facing them, it deserves recognition! In fact, research shows that by using this approach, you can lower a child's fear levels and even reverse them! Don't discount the power of praise. Take the time to acknowledge little steps towards bravery.
Not All Childhood Fears Will Go Away
Unfortunately, fears that revolve around change, death, pain or bodily harm, and the unknown will never truly go away. These are considered primal fears. They exist in our psyche and are a biological reaction that we all experience. This makes them a bit harder to handle, but by using the techniques above, you can help to lessen their impact. Also, remember that is takes time to overcome these natural emotions. Be patient. When your baby is scared, be there for them. Whether you find the trigger frightening or not, it's very real to them and you should treat it as such.