Your child may be afraid of monsters or the dark. Or perhaps your child is afraid of dogs or learning how to swim. Or maybe worries center around COVID-19 or other global events, such as the conflict in Ukraine. Here are some tips to navigate childhood fears.
May is Mental Health Awareness month, so please remember that no matter how seemingly big or small your child’s fears, they are real. Our children look to us as parents to help them navigate their worries. So if your children come to you and say they are scared, what can you do?
1. Validate your child’s fears.
Don’t be dismissive and don’t minimize concerns. As a parent, you can tell your child that it’s okay to have these feelings. You can tell children that you hear them and thank them for telling you that they are fearful. Thank them for putting their concerns into words. Then you can reassure your child that you are a team and will work together to ease their fears.
2. Recognize that some children are unable to articulate their fears.
Sometimes rather than talking about their fears, children may develop behavioral problems. Or they will say they have a stomachache or headache before heading off to school. If you suspect your child’s behavior, tummy trouble or headache may be related to a fear, ask open-ended questions to try to uncover their concern. Some conversation starters include, “What did you do at school today?” “Did anything happen that didn’t go as expected? “Did anything happen that didn’t go your way?” You may also consider asking them questions about whether any of their friends are having a hard time; that may get your children to open up about their own fears.
3. Come up with a plan to tackle the fear.
A gradual, step-by-step approach usually works best. If your child is afraid of dogs, for example, you can start by looking at pictures of dogs. Then consider finding a dog park – and standing across the street. Once your child is comfortable with that, try going to the dog park and talking to a dog’s owner. Then when your child is ready, offer your child an opportunity to pet a dog.
4. Celebrate every effort your child makes to overcome fears, even if it’s not successful.
And celebrate successes as well. Applaud children for being brave and facing their fears.
5. Be patient with your child.
Overcoming fears takes time, patience and reassurance.
6. Recognize that not all fears need to be overcome.
Understand your child’s goals. If your child can lead a happy and productive life while being afraid of dogs, for example, accept that.
7. Demonstrate healthy coping yourself.
Kids look to their parents as role models, so try to demonstrate consistency, routine and stability in your life. If parents are able to manage their fears, children often will be able to follow suit.
8. Limit media exposure.
If your child’s fears are rooted in current events, limit exposure to the news and social media. Join your child in viewing and processing this information. Provide reassurance and context to help your child make sense of overwhelming topics.
9. Know when to seek help.
While certain fears are typical, other fears are considered phobias, meaning the child is extremely afraid of a specific object, situation or activity – and the fear is so significant that it has a negative effect on the child’s life. Children with phobias have so much fear that they have a hard time doing regular activities. An example: a child who is too afraid to get into the car in the driveway because the next-door neighbor has a dog.
Signs that your child may need professional help include changes in sleeping and eating habits, behavioral changes and losing interest in previously enjoyable activities. Other red flags include a fear that is getting worse or is causing other problems in everyday life. If your child exhibits these signs, consider reaching out to your pediatrician for advice.
Phobias are often treated with exposure therapy, which means gradually getting close to the feared object or situation and practicing strategies to reduce the fear response. It is extremely successful for many patients.
I encourage parents to take their children’s childhood fears seriously. It’s tough growing up, and children have been through a lot of challenges during the past few years in particular. Be patient and help your children navigate their fears, and if you need help, please reach out to your medical team.