When Children Are Afraid

Whether your child is afraid of something real or imaginary, here's how to give comfort.
Your confidence will help reassure your child.

Young children can get spooked by just about anything -- the dark, the wind, or even a favorite stuffed animal. Or they seem to sail through a real frightening situation, only to become afraid of something days or weeks later.

No matter how scared your kids get, childhood fears are usually nothing to worry about. They are normal emotions that help your children figure out how the world works. Here are some dos and don'ts of offering comfort.

Do acknowledge the fear. It's important to tell your kids that you understand, that you were afraid of similar things when you were a child. Talking about your childhood fears lets your kids know that their fears aren't the end of the world. Your descriptions offer another benefit: they help your kids put their fears into words. Remember, the more successfully they can communicate their feelings, the less threatening those feelings become.

Don't discount the fear. Saying "That's silly" or "Big kids aren't afraid of such things" causes a child to feel that his or her fear is "bad." The resulting shame that your child feels may keep him or her from talking about the fear. This drives the fear inside, where it feeds upon itself.

Do respond with confidence. Try to assure your child that you understand the problem and won't allow any harm to come. Even if your child is terribly panicked, it's important th at you communicate your calm control over the situation. Nothing heightens a child's fears more than the feeling that adults are at a loss about what to do.

Don't ask lots of questions or go into lengthy explanations. Keep questions short and to the point, as in, "Can you tell me what's making you so afraid?" If your child can't seem to find the right words, don't force the issue. Just say, "It's alright. I'm here, and nothing can happen to you." Too many questions, as well as long-winded explanations that your child probably can't understand, will only confuse your child and elevate his or her anxiety.

Don't try to "track down" the fear. Oftentimes, a young child is ambiguous about a fear. If so, asking him or her suggestive questions, such as, "Are you afraid of the birds?" only implies that there may be something about birds that should be feared. Keep in mind that preschool-age children have difficulty comprehending that a word can exist for something that does not. Saying, "There are no such things as monsters" doesn't make sense to a young child, who can't reconcile the contradiction.

Do distract your child with something comforting and familiar. When it's obvious that your child is focused on the fear and can't let go, try reading a favorite storybook or engaging the child in playing with a favorite toy or coloring.

Don't let your child's fear control the family. Provide comfort, reassurance, and support, but don't respond to your child's fears by rearranging the environment or altering your lifestyle in artificial ways. Such changes may temporarily ease your child's anxieties, but they only make matters worse in the long run. Furthermore, letting your child's fears hold the family hostage gives him or her a tool with which to manipulate future issues.

Expect the unexpected. As I've told many parents, the sudden onset of strange and inexplicable fears is not unusual in 3- and 4-year-olds. In fact, the parents of a 3-year-old girl once told me that their child had suddenly become afraid of newspapers, and would flee from any room in which she discovered one. What happened to this couple's child is not abnormal. Around the age of 4, imagination begins to flower. To help your kids through this uncertain phase, remember that they need to feel confident in your ability to control a world that once seemed completely safe.


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