We all fear something. I’m afraid of drowning and dogs, while another person I know is afraid of crossroads. Fear is different for everyone, and fear knows no age limit. Children are also afraid of one thing or another.
Fear is one of our natural instincts and has played an important role in our species’ survival. Fear keeps us on our toes in situations having the potential to cause death, injury, or illness so we can act cautiously and stay safe.
But fear can also immobilize us. Intense fear of something which disrupts our day-to-day life is called a phobia. Children can develop phobias. Some common childhood phobias include fear of the dark, fear of monsters, fear of strangers, fear of being alone or abandoned, and fear of doctors and dentists.
According to pediatrician Alan Greene, if your child has a phobia, you basically want them to do the following on their own with just the right amount of push and support from you:
- Acknowledge their fears,
- Face their fears, and
- Find their own way to overcome their fears.
You can help them acknowledge their fears by:
- Remaining calm. When you’re angry or frustrated you won’t be able to think clearly and help your child.
- Acknowledge their fear as a real one. This means no laughing or making fun of your child and ignoring your child’s fear as imaginary.
- Gently encourage them to tell you about what it is they are really afraid of. For instance, there might be something more to your child’s fear of the dark. It might be they are afraid of being left alone, a result of overhearing you talk about divorce or separation with your spouse.
- Provide them with ample information about their fear. Knowledge is power. For instance, if your child is afraid of lightning or thunder, educate them on what these are, why they occur, and ways you can keep safe when they happen.
To help your child face their fears, you can:
- Assure them of your protection and support. This is confirmation you do acknowledge their fears are real and you take their concerns seriously. As a result, they would feel closer to you and might even become more ready and confident to tackle their fear with your help.
- Another suggestion Dr. Greene gives is to provide opportunities for your child to play with “non-threatening” versions of their fears. For example, if your kid is afraid of spiders, try buying toy spiders and let them play with them. If they’ve become comfortable with this, you can proceed to letting them interact with spiders in a glass and so on. It’s important you determine their comfort level so you know when to proceed to the next phase.
- Help your child build their fear hierarchy and encourage them to go through each level until ultimately they have conquered their fear. This kind of intervention was the subject of a study published in 2005 where children with phobias underwent a single session of treatment consisting of exposure, modeling, cognitive restructuring, and education about the subject of their fear. At the end of the session, which lasted for three hours, “a full 60 percent lost their phobia diagnosis.” This might be better if done with the help of experts though.
- Be a model. Children learn by copying. For example, if you’r afraid of canines, show them you are calm and confident around dogs and they need not panic.
In addition to the tips above, here are some ideas to help children explore ways to banish their fear:
- Let them make some art around their fears (hint: let them make it where they overcome their fears). This is another way for your child to express their fear and might work better if you find it hard to coax them to talk about their fears in the first place. Possible art activities they can do include drawing and finger painting.
- Let them lead play where they pretend to banish their fears. Children love to play pretend so why not use this to help them conquer their fear. For example, if they’re afraid of spiders, use the toy spiders you bought earlier to help them come up with a way to face and conquer their arachnophobia. You could pretend to spray the spiders with bug spray, but if they tell you another way to “defeat” the spiders go along with it. The key is to give them suggestions, but let them lead or correct you.
You should remember two more things to do in tandem with the tips above. Remember to always praise and reward your child every time they take a step toward overcoming their fear. It also helps if you always encourage them the next time they try again.
One more thing to remember is never push your child. If they become fearful, back off. Otherwise, it just might make things worse.
Finally, if all else fails, it might be time to visit a specialist. If you’ve done all you can and tried everything but nothing works, bring your child to your pediatrician who can refer you to specialists like a child psychologist where you can ask about cognitive-behavioral therapy or other similar treatments.
If you want to read more about how to deal with your child’s irrational fear, Dealing with Irrational Fears, by Dr. Greene is a good place to start. Today’s Parent and Women’s and Children’s Health Network also offer helpful articles.
What ways have you helped your children with their phobias? Do you have any helpful articles or books you would recommend on this subject?