“Mom, come here, now,” my three-year old whispers urgently as he pulls me toward the yard. “Red eyes,” he says, shivering with fear. “Red eyes.” My son believes we have a monster downstairs, but only at night when we are upstairs. Other monsters live in bushes at the back of our yard, where they feast on stray baseballs and Frisbees. That is why he is worried now. I am called in to retrieve the ball he has lost. I grab the ball and run back to him as if I’ve narrowly escaped. “Monsters are just pretend,” I say.
A big, scary world
As their understanding of the world increases, so do kids’ fears. Infants may be fearful of separation or loud noises, and those fears stick with kids into the toddler years. But as their experiences and imaginations grow, toddlers may also develop fears of animals and insects (dogs, snakes, spiders), characters in costumes (beware Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny), and things that lurk in the dark (ghosts and monsters, bad guys and robbers). They may also fear they’ll be sucked down the toilet or the bathtub drain, despite your constant reassurance that they won’t. School-aged kids may get over their fear of the boogeyman but grow anxious about social disapproval and failure.
“Anxious thinking - for all of us - is notoriously distorted, exaggerated, and unreliable,” notes Dr. Tamar Chansky, psychologist and author of Freeing Your Child from Anxiety: Powerful, Practical Solutions to Overcome Your Child's Fears, Worries, and Phobias. But don’t dismiss your child’s fears as childish or irrational. Confronting even the silliest scary scenarios helps kids learn to deal with real-life woes and worries. When your daughter shrieks and clings to your leg because the neighbor’s Border Collie bounces her way, embrace the teachable moment. Parents can help kids confront fears so they don’t grow bigger and scarier.
Fight fears together
Respect feelings. Fear feels uncomfortable. Your child’s heart is racing, their palms are sweaty and they want to escape to safety. Be their ally and accept their anxiety. If your child isn’t ready to pet the snake at the zoo or sleep without a night-light, don’t push it.
Word up. Kids can’t always express what scares them, especially when the body’s fear response is energizing them to fight or flee. Help your child identify specific concerns using age-appropriate words. Ask, “What is it about the dog that worries you?” or, “What might happen when the lights are off?” You can’t devise monster-slaying strategies if you don’t know the enemy.
Do reconnaissance. Fear festers when our imaginations get the best of us. The more your child learns about the feared situation, the less powerful their imaginary thoughts will be. Hold hands while you both check the basement for monsters. Go online and read about snakes together. Pretend you are engineers studying how self-flushing toilets work. Knowledge is power.
Talk back. Encourage your child to argue against the frightening thoughts or to repeat a calming phrase such as, “I am fast and strong. Ghosts can’t catch me!” Talking back shrinks scary thoughts. Dr. Susan Mather recalls that her son was sure there were monsters under the bed and in the closet. “We put a sign on the door that read ‘Monsters Keep Out’ and they obeyed!” she says.
Baby steps. “The best way to face a fear is a little at a time, from a safe distance,” says marriage, family and child therapist H. Norman Wright, author of Helping Your Kids Deal with Anger, Fear, and Sadness. Face a fear of heights by imagining the scary situation first. Then, move on to climbing a low structure, followed by a taller one, and so on. Give high-fives as kids conquer each challenge.
Be there. Kids need to know you’ll stick with them when they face their fears. Don’t let your own distress or embarrassment cause you to shut down or disappear. “Research indicates it takes about 20 minutes for the anxiety to subside when a fear is confronted,” Wright says. Work toward this goal with your child.
Be afraid, but not too afraid
Fear is essential for survival - it helps us to escape dangerous situations. But if your child’s fears keep them from engaging in everyday activities, it may be time to seek professional help. Some kids’ fear systems are much more sensitive than others. Anxious kids may be trapped in a whirlwind of fearful thoughts, and paralyzed by nagging “what-ifs.” Talk with your paediatrician or school psychologist if your child’s fears are overwhelming you both.
It is no accident that most children’s books and movies have villains. Vicarious scares allow kids to practice coping from a safe emotional distance. These books confront kids’ fears head-on without keeping them up at night with please-check-what’s-in-my-closet concerns.
Story and picture books
Junie B. Jones Has a Monster Under Her Bed (1997) by Barbara Park. Junie scares away an invisible under-bed monster using an ugly school picture of her as a weapon.
A Not Scary Story About Big Scary Things (2010) by C.K. Williams. A growling monster begs a brave boy to believe in him in this silly story.
On A Scary Scary Night (Can You See What I See?; 2008) by Walter Wick. Search for objects in spooky scenes with your child to encourage conversation about scary subjects.
Wemberly Worried (2000) by Kevin Henkes. Anxious kids will recognize themselves in Wemberly, a shy white mouse with lots of worries.
What Was I Scared Of? A Glow-in-the Dark Encounter (2009) by Dr. Seuss. The narrator of this delightful classic is terrorized by an empty pair of pants that is equally scared of the narrator.
For ages six to 12: What to Do When You Worry Too Much: A Kid's Guide to Overcoming Anxiety (2005) by Dawn Huebner. This book educates and inspires kids to confront their anxieties with proven cognitive-behavioral techniques.
For ages nine to 13: What to Do When You're Scared and Worried: A Guide for Kids (2004) by James J. Crist. Kids learn practical fear-chasing and worry-erasing strategies and find out when to seek expert help for more serious anxiety disorders.
Heidi Smith Luedtke is a psychologist turned freelance writer and mom of two. Read her blog on parenting as a leadership experience at www.leadingmama.com.
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