Conquering Children's Fears and Anxieties
Peeling a child off of you who is absolutely terrified is one of the most heart wrenching experiences as a parent. Sometimes we can get to the root cause and help them understand or get through those fears while other times it seems like they are scared without reason.
There is always a reason and although you may never be able to determine what the root cause of the fear is, having the tools to help your child cope and manage those fears is the important part.
Trying to reason with a child who is scared can be virtually impossible, which is why it is important that you talk to your child about their fears and anxieties when they are not in the throes of expressing those fears. When your child is fearful or anxious they are not able to comprehend that you are trying to help. They are in another zone and all they need from you is your presence and for you to allow them to work out and release those fearful emotions.
Limit exposure to the scary things
The easiest way to do away with fears is to limit their exposure to scary or frightful things. Easier said than done though as a lot of children are often exposed when parents are not around or if they have older siblings. Be mindful of what they are watching, be sure to have open discussions that the stuff on tv or in movies is not real - perhaps show them how movies are made. The more you talk about it when they are calm and receptive, the more they will understand it when they are fearful.
There is no such thing as a monster
When we play into a child’s fear by giving them monster spray, checking under their beds or having them think that you yourself believe in monsters it could be encouraging the fear that monsters are real and scary. A simple yet repetitive phrase that monsters are not real, that they do not exist and that there is no way that something that isn’t real can hurt them. By remaining consistent with this response you will be enforcing their belief that monsters do not exist. It may be something that will need to be repeated over and over again while chatting about imaginations, make believe and perhaps supporting them with a comforting hug if needed.
Filling the bucket
When working with your child’s emotions we like to refer to it as filling their bucket. We always want our little ones and big ones to feel safe, secure and loved at all times. For some children they need more than a quick hug and an I love you in the morning. They need their bucket filled throughout the day with quick hugs, reassuring glances, a touch, some one on one time and to know that someone is there anytime they need it. This not only builds their confidence and independence but it also teaches them that whatever the situation they know they can turn to you as their parents and feel safe.
Facing their fears
Children can relate more to situations in their lives if it is based on play. Role-play about their fears with their favourite stuffed animals, dolls, action figures or whatever they enjoy playing with.
How to: Engage in a make believe game with your child using their favourite toys to help them express themselves through their character. Allowing your child’s character to be the one in control of the play will enable your child to express the emotions they may be feeling with those fears. Encouraging laughter and silly play throughout is also important.
A child who is fearful needs the patience of taking baby steps to allow them to become comfortable again. Help them face their fears slowly and beside you and with your calming presence. Allow them to work out the fears and emotions that they may be feeling without labeling their feelings or pushing them into the situation.
Example: For a child who is afraid of dogs, start by looking at pictures, watching videos of funny dogs, talking about different things dogs do (sniffing, licking, barking..) and perhaps cute names for dogs. Once your child seems okay with talking about dogs you can try introducing them to a real dog from afar. Start to bring your child closer to the dog while you are holding them. Allow the dog to sniff you but do not push your child to touch the dog. Be sure to have a little laugh as the dog sniffs and licks your hand. Start small with short increments of time with the dog and once your child becomes more comfortable, you can start encouraging a little more:
- Allowing the dog to sniff
- Putting their hand out for the dog to sniff
- Petting the dog
This baby steps approach works well with other fears as well. Bath time fears, crib and bed fears, swimming or open water fear, meeting new people, etc.
Depending on the intensity of the fear and the amount of time the fear has been present, the process can be shortened or lengthened.
Encourage the snuggle and chat before bed
A child who struggles with fears and anxieties will more than likely be the most anxious or the most frightened right before going to bed. Allow your child the time in their bedtime routine to be able to offload their emotions, talk about their fears and just know that they have someone who is giving them their undivided attention. Giving them a secure space to feel what they need to feel and talk about it can really do a lot to help them settle into sleep and calm their anxiety, which will give them the confidence they need to conquer the next day.