Part 1 and part 2 of our series on Childhood Fears discussed the origin & progression of fears and how parents might be adding on to the child’s anxiety. In this final part of the series, we’ll explore the various ways in which parents can address their child’s fears and help her overcome them.
As we know, fear is an emotion that is necessary for our survival. So, when a child approaches her parent with a fear of something, the first thing most parents do is deny the existence of the entity. Now, this may help an adult, but for a child with an active imagination where anything is possible, this brings no respite. Fear strips the mind from logic. So, the first thing what you should do is remember that this fear is keeping your child safe and is helping your child develop her survival instincts. As a parent, you want your child to be safe, right? So, let them admit they are scared and talk about them openly to you.
The next step is reassuring your child that you’re there for her. The child came looking for security, and that’s what you should give her, in action and words.
The third step is understanding the kind of fear your child has.
As we discussed in Part 1 of the series, most newborns are frightened of loud sounds and unfamiliar faces. These are reflexive fears of the unknown triggered by something in the moment. Even if you soothe the child, the fear will return as soon as the trigger reappears. There isn’t much you can do at this stage because the logical and reasoning parts of the child’s brain are still developing. However, you can reduce the anxiety by slowly introducing the child with the triggers in your presence.
For example, if your child is scared of the sound of a toilet flush, you can move her potty training from the bathroom to right next to the toilet. Stay there till the end. When the child is done, turn on the flush and watch it with your child. Similarly, stranger anxiety or separation anxiety can be overcome by sending the child for daycare early on or wait till she is older than 2 years.
As a child grows and starts exploring her surroundings, her fears become associated with certain objects. Seeing a large dog barking can make the child scared of all dog-like animals, like a goat maybe. Even adults are scared of certain animals, so dismissing the fear or telling that the animal is harmless will not work. You’ll have to show that in a way that the experiences the harmless part herself. These are experiential fears which can be overcome by replacing negative experience with positive ones.
For example, read the story of a friendly goat. Then, get a stuffed goat toy for the child to play with. Take your child to a zoo and encourage her to pet the goat’s calf. A thing to remember here is not to force the interaction in any way. Let the child warm up to the goat naturally. Forcing is only going to make matters worse.
By the age of 5, children get exposed to esoteric fears like death and start asking questions. Here, it’s important to remain honest with your child rather than saying that grandfather has gone on a vacation. However, downplay the probability of a similar incident happening to others in the future. For example: You can be truthful that all things die eventually, but it is not likely to happen anytime soon. There are many years the child has to create beautiful memories with the person. The goal is to reinstate the child’s feeling of security without scaring the child with unnecessary details. Offer temporary security and move on.
The fundamental rule of childhood fears is not to make a big deal about them.
Statements like “there is nothing in the cupboard” or “keep your room tidy, or I’ll tell Boogeyman to take you way” often play on child’s fear making them seem a part of his reality. Instead have a healthy discussion with the child sharing possibilities like cupboard monster just looking to play or is maybe scared of the darkness inside the closet and thus, wants to come out. Let the child come up with her answers.
Here’s a summary for you
- Remember: Fear is an essential human emotion.
- Reassure: You’re always with your child.
- Slowly introduce the child with triggers in your presence in case of Reflexive fears (of the unknown).
- Replace negative experiences with positive ones in case of Experiential fears.
- Be honest but downplay/modify the truth appropriate to the child’s age in case of Esoteric fears.
- Never make a big deal out of fear.