Helping Kids When they are Scared
Getting scared is a normal and important part of child development. When children get scared they learn to understand risk, evaluate threat and manage emotions. They learn these skills regardless of what they are scared about. In other words: Children being scared about the dark are in training for managing fear as an adult. Here are 8 ideas to keep in mind about fear in children.
1. We should explain (many times) to children that fear is a normal part of being a person. From time to time, tell children that all adults (including their mum and dad) get scared sometimes. In a matter of fact way, talk about what happens when people get scared – their hearts beat fast and they breathe quickly and sometimes their hands shake a little bit.
2. It is important to remember that children get scared of all kinds of things that as adults we don’t usually fear – the dark, getting messy, riding bikes, images or ideas from television shows, “monsters”, “baddies”, clowns, being away from home, parents getting hurt, dogs and so on. Many of these fears will disappear by themselves. Most of the time fears do not signal any “deeper issue”.
3. When children tell you they are afraid of something, try not to respond with “that’s silly, everything is fine” or “there’s nothing to be afraid of”. Although we mean this to be reassuring, these statements can send a message that children should NOT experience fear and there is something bad about feeling like this.
4. Instead, at least on some occasions, ask children more about how they feel. Ask specific questions like: what makes them scared and what they wish they could change. Then tell them that you are sorry they feel worried and that you love them and will be there for them. This doesn’t need to be a drawn out conversation but simply take one or two minutes to talk with them. Sometimes you won’t have time or the energy for this and that is okay too.
5. Some childhood fears can be dealt with by accommodating the child’s wishes. For example, it is fine for children to have a nightlight for as long as they want one, for them to come home after playing at a friends’ house rather than sleeping over, for them to not have to pet dogs, to not have to go to the circus or watch television shows they find disturbing. Children should not “have to learn” to be brave with issues that can be easily avoided. They will have to learn to deal with many unavoidable fears soon enough, it is quite acceptable for them to be spared some of their fears.
6. However, certain fears do interfere with life and are less easily avoided. For example, sometimes fears of school, being with other children, not doing things perfectly, parents being hurt and so on start to stop children from being involved in important parts of life (eg, school, socialising, and play). For these fears, try to help children learn “brave behaviour”. Think about the kinds of things you want your child to do in those situations, break these actions into steps and teach these skills in the same way you teach children to use a knife and fork. Ask children to act brave just a little at a time, be patient, and reward each step they make. The key is to focus on encouraging confident behaviour (eg, being at a friend’s house for increasing amounts of time) and not focus on feelings (eg, how anxious the child feels). The child needs to learn that they can “be” brave, even when they are not “feeling” brave.
7. We often fear what we don’t understand and so much is new to children. It can often help to give children some sense of understanding and “control” over things they fear. When children appear afraid, acknowledge the feeling but then help them explore the source of their fear with your support. For example, if your child is startled by loud noises, say “it looks like that noise frightened you; let’s go together to see what it is”. Invite children to come closer to look with you when they are ready and help them experiment with the thing they fear with your support to help them feel braver (eg, turn on and off the vacuum cleaner, turn the volume up and down, press the noisy toy to see what it does).
8. We need to be careful that we do not accidentally reward or reinforce “scared” behaviour in children. If we always pay a great deal of attention to a child who is talking in a frightened voice, if we seem anxious ourselves about a child being scared, then we send two subconscious messages to this child: (1) “I am particularly interested in you when you are worried.” (2) “Being worried is wrong and we must change this”. These messages are not helpful. This does not mean ignoring a child’s fears, but it does mean making sure it is not the only time children get our full attention.
9. It is important to help children think through their fears rather than always reassuring them ourselves. If a child can come up with a reassuring statement on their own, they are more likely to believe it than if they have just heard it from a parent. To help children come up with their own reassuring statements, ask them questions like: hmm, IF that did happen, how would you handle it? Do you think that is likely to happen or not very likely to happen? Do you think that there is some other way of thinking about that? and so on.
10. Remember that helping kids deal with fear (and other emotions) is a life long quest. Try to be patient.
Some children are more prone to worry than other children. If you are finding yourself spending a lot of time and energy dealing with your child’s fears, it is worth talking to a health professional to get extra support and ideas of how to help them. If you want information about our counselling services, please click here: counselling.