Fears are part of being a kid. Monsters in the closet. Spiders. Dentists. Clowns. We all had fears growing up. It’s part of our individual development. As each child deals with fears differently, parents have their own unique methods of rationalizing those fears. Some parenting is more effective than others.
When fears arise, our natural inclination as parents is to make it all better. We want to wrap them in a warm blanket as a means of comfort. We turn on the light, open the closet, take down that clown poster, whatever we need to do to show them the fear is not real. It’s imaginary. But, is that what parents should be doing?
Fear is necessary for development
“Without fear, we’d jump headlong into things we shouldn’t,” says Tamar E. Chansky, Ph.D., author of Freeing Your Child from Anxiety. “Some fear is evolutionary in nature.” Case in point, snakes. Even though the likelihood of running across a snake venomous or not is low many kids and even some adults maintain the fear. Our brains are wired to protect us from things like snakes. We tend to be afraid of things we don’t understand or that are outside our experience.
Ideally, parents should not always be there to help kids calm down. Teaching children to deal with fears without help can actually help build confidence. This will allow them to feel more in control, and consequently, less afraid. This is a life skill that is beneficial for children and on into adulthood.
How can parents help
Withholding of support should come in stages. The goal is not to rescue all the time, but to act as a guide until kids are ready to fly solo. Parents provide a blueprint or framework for how they need to stand on their own. So, what’s the most effective way to help without hurting forward progress?
Dealing with fears independently
The solution may be, what psychologists call, self-regulation. This is the ability to manage our own emotions, behaviors and fears independently and in a more mentally healthy way. The practice may be familiar, but many people don’t know it by name. If you can talk yourself off the proverbial “ledge” without acting irrationally, that’s self-regulation. It’s the reassurance you give yourself that the haunted house isn’t scary, they’re just actors, or that those spiders are behind thick plate glass. For children, this takes time and practice to learn and eventually master. Consequently, parents have to understand and feel comfortable allowing their kids to live in an uncomfortable situation as they learn to navigate.
Discuss their fears
Ask your child to open up about what’s scaring them. They know what is scaring them but don’t always know how to articulate. Ask them specific questions. If they have a fear of clowns, ask questions about what makes them scary, or do you remember a scary experience you had with clowns? When you have a better understanding of their fears, you’ll know how to help them work through them.
Once you know what the fear is, validate their fear and concerns. Downplaying their fear makes them feel that you’re not on their side or that they are alone with the fear. Give them reassurance and then start discussing how you’ll work together on a solution so that they can feel comfortable managing the fear independently.
Build a framework
Set reasonable goals for conquering fears. If they need the light on to fall asleep, you could agree to a timeline for turning off the light on their own. After the goal is set, talk through each of the steps and then be patient.
The framework might look like this:
- Agree that you’ll turn off the lights, leave the hall light on until they fall asleep.
- Have the child turn the lights off and crack the door. You leave the hall light on until they fall asleep.
- Have the child turn the lights off and close the door. You leave the hall light on until they fall asleep.
Remember that change takes time. Be firm and consistent but also provide encouragement. Build their confidence by telling them you know they can overcome fears. Words of affirmation like, “You’re so brave!” or “These fears are no match for you,” can help them feel more confident.
The next level
If your child’s fears are persistent, overly intense, or begin interfering with daily life, it might be time to seek help from trained professionals. Severe anxiety, compulsive behavior, and withdrawal from common activities are some of the warning signs to look for.
Additional signs that a fear may be a legitimate phobia include:
- Fixation on the object of fear, thinking or referring to it often out of context. An example might be an overt anxiousness many months before a planned zoo trip in which snakes may be part of the tour.
- Debilitating fear. Personal happiness and enjoyment of life suffers. In the snake example, refusing to go to the zoo because there might be snakes there.
If any of these fears seem like they might be something more serious, talk with a professional about getting more specific and directed help.
As parents, we want to protect our kids now and into the future. We want to make it all better and make the fear go away. We tend to do things based on our own instinct of what we think is best for them, in the moment. If we take a longer-term view of childhood development, the best medicine isn’t always intervention. The short-term fears we help them overcome may hinder their ability to overcome adult anxieties. If we can help them deal with fears on their own in a healthy way. That will set them up for success for years to come.