Childhood fears are common, but that doesn’t make them easy to deal with. Your child may be afraid of something entirely imaginary, like ghosts or monsters, or of some real-life danger, like dogs, burglars or thunderstorms.
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Either way, it can be exhausting to reassure them that monsters don’t exist or to cross the street every time a dog comes nearby. The good news is that most childhood fears are normal and pass in their own in time. With a little care, you can help them to pass more quickly while reassuring your child that everything really will be OK.
Take Fears Seriously
Never belittle your child’s fears. Although it’s good to remind your child gently that her fears are overblown by saying things such as, “monsters aren’t real, sweetheart” or “I’ll bet that bee will leave us alone if we don’t bother it,” avoid implying that the fears are stupid and irrational. Phrases like, “Don’t be ridiculous!” or “You’re just being silly,” shouldn’t be in your vocabulary when you’re combating childhood fears.
But Don’t Cater To Them
On the other extreme, some parents are tempted to bend over backward to show that they take their children’s fears seriously, such as going inside whenever they see a spider or walking around the swimming pool to make sure there are no sharks there. This sends the message that the object of your child’s fear is truly a terrifying and realistic threat; if even mommy goes inside at the sight of spiders, they must be as bad as your child thinks! Again, it’s better to reassure your child gently that everything is fine rather than to reinforce his fears.
Experts are divided on whether this extends to checking under the bed for monsters before bed. For instance, La Trobe University argues that checking for monsters tells your child that monsters are real, while the University of Rochester Medical Center and the Sleep Foundation say that it can be helpful. Try it with your child and see if it works. It might help if you make it clear that you don’t actually expect to find monsters. Saying, “Hmm, any monsters here tonight? Nope!” suggests that one night, the answer could be “Yes.” On the other hand, if you say, “I’ll check for you, honey, but remember monsters aren’t real. See?” you’re making it clear that you’re doing this for her, not because of any fear of your own.
Talk About Your Child’s Fears
If your child is old enough to articulate their feelings, ask them to explain what they’re afraid will happen if they go near the objects of their fears. If your child hates dogs because they might knock them over and bite them, it’s easier to help a child understand why the tiny dog behind the fence can’t bite them than to somehow explain away the entire concept of dogs. Even if it’s something obvious, “I’m scared of bees because I don’t want them to sting me,” talking about the fear can make it less powerful.
Reassure your child, but be honest. If your child is afraid of death, you shouldn’t pretend that he or she and everyone they love is going to live forever, but you can explain how unlikely it is for you to die any time soon. If your child is afraid of getting shots at the doctor’s office, you shouldn’t pretend that shots don’t hurt, but you can remind them that they’re helpful and that the pain won’t last long.
Model Calm Behavior
If you’re confronted by the object of your child’s fear, stay calm and show your child how to react. You might find it useful to do a “think-aloud,” talking through the thoughts that keep you from being afraid: “Oh, the wind and the thunder are loud. It’s a good thing that we’re in our house that’ll keep us safe and dry, isn’t it? I think I’m going to play a little music so I don’t even hear that wind anymore.” Your child may start hearing your calm voice in their head whenever they start to feel afraid.
Teach Coping Techniques
They aren’t just for adults! If you show your child how to calm themselves down through visualization, deep breathing or positive self-statements, they’ll have those tools in their toolbox and do it on their own in the future. Teach them to imagine something calm and soothing when they are afraid, like your kitchen or her bed. Have your child breathe in slowly, counting to five-Mississippi with each inhale or exhale. Have them repeat statements to themselves like “I’m brave and strong” or “I can do this.” These skills can help your child to protect themselves from their fears.