Six ways to respond to your child’s fears

The month of May is mental health month so we have asked some of our experts from our pediatric psychology department to guest blog throughout the month about issues related to kids and mental health! Be sure to check back each week for a new topic!

Have you ever awoken in the middle of the night to find your child crawling into bed next to you? If so, you are not alone. Most children experience fears of the dark, strangers, storms, unidentified noises, and many other things at some point in time. Parents can minimize most normal childhood fears by supporting their children, educating their children, and preparing children in advance for new situations.

What are “normal” childhood fears?

  • Infants:
    • Loud noises
    • Fear of strangers
    • Separation from parents
  • Toddlers:
    • Loud noises (alarms, trucks, thunder)
    • Animals
    • Dark
    • Separation from parents
    • Masks
    • Unidentified noises (especially at night)
  • School age children
    • Supernatural beings (ghosts, witches, “Darth Vader,” “Chucky”)
    • Being injured or harmed
    • Weather (thunder and lightning, tornados, house fires)
    • Intruders/kidnappers
    • Harm to family members
    • Separation from parents
    • Dark (less common in 9-12 year olds)
    • School performance
    • Physical appearance
  • Teenagers
    • Social fears
    • Identity
    • Future
    • Performance (in school and sports)
    • Sexuality
    • Appearance

 

Six ways to respond to your child’s fears

  1. Don’t belittle your child’s fear: Empathize with your child rather than making comments such as, “That’s silly. There’s nothing to be afraid of – it’s just a little storm.” “That’s ridiculous, there’s no such thing as a ghost.” Never tease your child about a fear, as your child may simply stop talking to you about her fear.
  2. Don’t force your child to confront a fear “all at once”: Gradually exposing a child to a feared situation is a better way to help a child confront a fear than exposing a child “all at once” to a fear. If your child’s fear does not dissipate while being confronted with a frightening situation (e.g., dog), the fear may become more entrenched and resistant to change.
  3. Don’t cater to a fear: The only way to overcome a fear is to confront it. Allowing a child to avoid situations or feared items will just reinforce his fear.
  4. Don’t overreact: Be sure to send your child a message through your words and body language that there isn’t anything to fear. If you cling on to your child’s arm and your voice quivers as you attempt to reassure your child the storm will pass, your child is unlikely to feel reassured.
  5. Prepare your child for new experiences: New situations produce anxiety in most children, so it is important to prepare your child as much as possible for any new situation. Children can be prepared for new experiences through books, movies, role playing, and visiting ahead of time (e.g., visiting the hospital before a procedure is performed, meeting a new teacher before the first day of school).
  6. Help your child cope with fear
    1. Help your child identify and label her fear or anxiety
    2. Help your child rate his fear

Knowing how frightened your child is will help you know if your child can remain in a frightening situation. Children need to learn that fear will eventually decrease if they are able to stay in an anxiety inducing situation long enough.

  • Teach your child how to physically relax
  • Teach your child to talk positively to herself (e.g., “I’m inside and the lightning can’t hurt me,” “The doors and windows are locked so a robber can’t get in”)

 

Fears and worries are a normal part of child development. If fears and worries prevent your child from being able to engage in age appropriate activities, consider seeking professional help.

Additional information regarding children and anxiety can be found on the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry’s website at: www.aacap.org/. Information for both children and parents regarding anxiety and many other topics can be found at www.kidshealth.org.

For more information about how to help your child overcome anxieties and fears, consider reading Monsters Under the Bed and Other Childhood Fears: Helping Your Child Overcome Anxieties, Fears, and Phobias by Stephen W. Garber, Ph.D., Marianne Daniels Garber, Ph.D, and Robyn Freeman Spizman

By: Julie Stucke, Ph.D.

Dr. Stucke has been working at Dayton Children’s for 15 years. She sees patients in the psychology department for a variety of concerns and has a special interest in anxiety disorders and cystic fibrosis. Dr. Stucke has been married for 18 years and has two kids.

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