Fear is a normal emotion that we all experience, and calming a worried or anxious child is an experience all parents will encounter. For young children (approximately ages 1-4), most fears are responses to specific things, such as loud noises, new or unfamiliar situations, strangers, or getting hurt. As a child’s imagination begins to blossom (approximately ages 3-6), it is common for children to begin to express fears related to imaginary and abstract things such as monsters, the dark, being alone, or “bad guys.”
Most fears for very young children stem from three primary things: direct experience with something that is scary or unpleasant, such as getting a shot at the doctor’s office; things that are unknown, such as a new group of people or a new situation; and the experiences of others, such as watching a parent or guardian have a frightened reaction to something, or seeing someone else getting hurt.
A calm, sensitive, and thoughtful approach to your child’s fears can help them manage these emotions, and learn how to cope with the common experience of being afraid.
Parenting tips to help children handle and manage fear
Acknowledge and validate the feeling. As children’s exposure to the world grows, and their imagination develops, it is normal for children to experience fear. For preschool children, it is common to experience fears related to imaginary things like monsters or ghosts. While it is tempting to try to calm a child by insisting that the fear is “silly,” or simply telling a child to “stop being afraid,” these approaches will do little to reduce the emotion the child is experiencing. Instead, start by acknowledging that you recognize that the child is frightened, and label the feeling for them (e.g. “I can see that you are feeling scared of that dog.”). It is also helpful to take this a step further and let your child know that being afraid is something that everyone experiences - even a parent! Sharing that you sometimes feel afraid will help normalize the emotion.
Reduce exposure to scary things. This seems obvious, but the content of media and the news today contains more graphic and frightening images than in previous years, and often graphics are more life-like. Be sure to monitor carefully (as much as possible) what your child is viewing, reading, and listening to. If they are exposed to something scary, take the time to talk to them about what they saw or heard, and when they think it means.
Help your child prepare for the unknown. Once a child has the developmental capacity to think “what if..” a whole new world of possibility (and sometimes anxiety) can come into play. Children are comforted by what is familiar and what is routine. While new experiences are a necessary and exciting part of life, you can help your child by preparing them for new situations. Before a new experience (like a dentist visit, or a trip to the movies), talk to your child about what to expect. If you have a particularly cautious child, books or images that depict what can happen or what they will see can be particularly helpful. If your child is anxious during a new experience, validate quickly, and offer reassurance, but try not to dwell too much on the anxiety. Stay relaxed and confident, and provide physical comfort and a secure base to ease your child into a new experience.
Manage your own anxiety. The ability of a child to experience empathy, or understand the emotional response of another, is a very valuable developmental task. However, we must be aware of how our own responses to things influence our children. We want to be sure to “take our own temperature” as caregivers, and make sure that we are not inadvertently passing our own fears and anxieties onto our children. Kids look to adults they love and trust to evaluate if a situation is scary if they see that you are anxious (even if it is about their anxiety) children will become increasingly wary of the situation.
As a parent, try not to worry too much about childhood fears. Most children outgrow fears during the preschool years with time (and patient caregivers). If fears persist for several months or interfere with daily living, it is helpful to seek the advice of a professional.
Remember that what each child needs is different. Dr. Adams provides individual (Skype or phone based) parent coaching to address a range of concerns (e.g., sleep struggles, tantrums, limit testing, co-parenting issues). Email Dr. Adams for more information, or to schedule an appointment at firstname.lastname@example.org, or learn more here: www.personalizedparenting.org.