Helping Children Cope with Fears
Ardie Paul, a Tulsa mom, said her daughter’s fear of outdoor noises was difficult for both of them.
“She would duck for cover when an airplane flew over,” Paul said, “jump out of her skin if a truck put on its air brakes, and cling to my leg if she heard rustling in the leaves or bushes along the edge of our yard.”
According to Leta Bell, a licensed counselor in Tulsa, “Fear is the exact opposite of love. If you took every emotion that human beings have and boiled them down into two categories, good and bad, all emotions boil down to either fear or love.”
Children differ greatly in how they respond to the emotion of fear. Most parents have little difficulty teaching their children about the emotion of love, but when it comes to teaching children about fear, many parents find it helpful to talk with other parents, pediatricians, and in some cases trained counselors on how they can help their children cope with fears.
Fear is a powerful human emotion, designed to protect us from dangerous situations.
“Fear is a gift! It’s our natural warning sign,” Bell said.
Most people tend to experience fear in situations that are potentially dangerous; however, children haven’t had enough experience with the world to differentiate between rational and irrational signs of danger.
Dr. Kristin Stevens, a board certified pediatrician in Tulsa said, “Children tend to have more fears than adults because of their limited ability to understand the world. Where adults can rationalize what’s going on in the world, children can’t work through those things without the support of a caring parent or adult.”
As parents, sometimes it is hard to remember what it was like to be a little kid in a big world surrounded by loud, unfamiliar sounds, thunderstorms, barking dogs, and strange shadows in the dark. Although children’s fears may seem irrational to parents, it is important that parents remember that those fears are, in fact, very real to them.
How Childhood Fears Develop
According to Dr. Stevens, young children’s fears can develop from the following: a child’s lack of understanding about what happens in his or her environment, increased level of emotional sensitivity or prior traumatic experience.
In the book, Seven Steps to Help Your Child Worry Less, Kristy Hagar, Ph.D., explains that although older children begin to understand that bad things can happen, they may still have difficulty estimating how likely it is that this dangerous event will actually occur.
“Some kids have a hard time understanding that a thunderstorm isn’t likely to end in a tree falling into their house,” Dr. Stevens explained, “or that the room stays the same after the lights are turned off.”
Of course, if a tree really did fall into the house during a thunderstorm, the child’s fear of this happening again isn’t completely irrational, but the probability that this same event will happen again is unlikely. What makes this situation more challenging is that young children have difficulty understanding probabilities. So when children see something frightening on the news, such as a terrorist attack, Dr. Stevens said, it’s essential that parents talk to their children about how rare these events actually are.
In addition, it’s also important that parents explain to their children how they have prepared an action plan to keep the family safe if an unfortunate event, like what they witnessed on the news, does indeed occur.
Children, like adults, tend to base their fears on their own experiences. So if a child has experienced the death of a close friend or family member, he or she may develop anxiety or fears related to death in general. For example, 6-year-old Emma has a heightened fear of loud sounds and bugs that developed after the death of her grandmother.
Emma’s mother, Carley Sullens, said, “The fear of train sounds started when she [Emma] turned five. My mom was dying of cancer and Emma and I spent a month with her. There was a train nearby my mother’s house, and I think the sound reminds her of that time when she was separated from her brother and father and watched me care for and grieve over the loss of my mother.”
Fears in children can also be based on the child’s level of excitability and imagination. In the book The Highly Sensitive Child, author Elaine N. Aron, Ph.D., explains how sensitive children who respond to stimuli with a heightened level of sensitivity, awareness, and intensity tend to have fears that develop earlier, last longer, and are stronger than their less sensitive peers. Yvonne Spence, mother of a 14-year-old girl with a wide range of general fears, said she knew her daughter was sensitive when she sat her daughter on the grass and “she wouldn’t budge.”
Common Childhood Fears at Different Ages
Dr. Stevens said, “Some people consider the startle reflex to be a fear of falling or fear of loud sounds in a newborn baby — but that’s questionable.”
According to Dr. Stevens, the most widely agreed upon fear in infants is separation anxiety. “As young as 6 to 9 months and peaking about 10 months of age, many infants cry out in protest after their parent, particularly the primary caregiver, leaves the room,” Dr. Stevens said. “Sometimes this can affect the child’s sleep, where the infant starts waking up in the middle of the night and notices that the parent isn’t there, so they may cry out for their parent instead of just going back to sleep.”
Yvonne said that her daughter’s separation anxiety occurred almost from birth. “When she was just a few days old she was very distressed unless she was being held or near to me,” she said. “She was very sensitive to what was happening around her.”
“Between 2-4 years, children start to fear the dark or monsters under the bed,” Dr. Stevens said.
This is because around this age of development, children have difficulty separating fact from fiction, so things that go bump in the night or monsters under the bed seem frighteningly real to children. Parents can help a child overcome fear of the dark by placing a night-light in their room said Dr. Stevens.
To help a child conquer fears of monsters, a popular method used by parents is homemade “Monster Spray.” Simply fill a spray bottle with water and label the bottle: “Monster Spray.” The child can then spray the “Monster Spray” in his or her bedroom before bedtime to keep the monsters away.
According to Dr. Stevens, another way to help children cope with their fear of monsters is to talk about how some monsters, like Elmo, are “friendly monsters.” In addition, monitoring children’s screen time, so they aren’t exposed to inappropriate television programs or video games, is another way to help reduce the fear of monsters in children.
Many 6- to 7-year-old children are beginning to understand more about the permanence of death, so parents may see these children start to fear the death of a parent.
Additionally, “Things in the natural environment like thunderstorms or, like here in Oklahoma, tornadoes may also develop [at this age],” Dr. Stevens said.
According to Leta Bell, all fears need to be addressed because fears may indicate that the child needs to be assured that he or she is safe. So in order to help a fearful child feel safe, she suggests parents look for ways to help their children deal with their fears by talking the them through the fear and educating children on real safety concerns.
For example, Bell said, “If a child is demonstrating an irrational fear of thunderstorms, the parent could say to the child, ‘If we hear the tornado sirens then we will take shelter, that’s why we have our basement.’” Then she said it is helpful to take the child to the basement, so he or she can see how the family has prepared for a possible tornado: by storing extra blankets, water, and food, preparing a special place for the family pets, and installing a weather warning radio.
Dr. Stevens pointed out that parents can walk a line between validating a child’s fears and exaggerating the fears. On one hand, children need to feel heard and supported, but fears shouldn’t alter the daily routine or behavior.
“You don’t want to belittle it [the fear] by saying, ‘Oh there’s nothing to be afraid of’, because to them they are afraid,” she said. “But also you don’t want to exaggerate [the fear] either.”
When parents try to shield their children from the possibility of ever encountering a scary dog or spider, they are demonstrating to the child that it is okay to alter their life to avoid a potential fear.
Instead of trying to avoid the fear, Bell said, “Parents need to look for ways to help their child feel safe. If the child is being irrational about a thunderstorm, it’s important that [the parent] lets the child know that they understand [the child] is scared.”
During adolescence, childhood fears may be replaced with common fears found in adults. Based on her experience with adolescents, Bell said, “I think with adolescents you’re going to see more peer based fears, like being rejected by their peers. That’s very psychosocially appropriate for that age. Adolescents are very concerned about what their peers think of them and their biggest fear is the fear of rejection by their peers. So they may be concerned about how they look, their appearance, their weight, how they’re dressed, or what their schoolmates think of them.”
Age When Childhood Fears Diminish
According to Dr. Stevens, “Childhood fears tend to diminish after age 11, but that can depend on how the fear has been handled or addressed.” In some circumstances, a child may experience a traumatic event at a later age, where the fear persists into adolescence.
When Fears Persist
Both Dr. Stevens and Leta Bell said, if children are not “outgrowing” common childhood fears or their fears start to interfere with their daily life, then it is time for parents to intervene. Bell said parents can start this process by, “Informing the child about the fear and using behavioral modification strategies at home.”
For example, Ardie, mother of the young girl who was afraid of loud noises, helped her daughter overcome her fears by slowly acclimating her daughter to the things causing the fear.
“[I helped her overcome her fears by] holding her a lot of the time we were outdoors,” Ardie said, “by comforting her, and by explaining each sound as we heard it together. We made the fears seem less threatening by making up stories about the people traveling on the airplanes, investigating noises we heard in the woods like we were spies, and pretending the air brakes from trucks were actually the trucks sneezing.”
Carly, mother of the young girl with a heightened fear of loud sounds and bugs said, “We have used our imagination to put her fears into a worry box to lock them away, shrink the bugs so they’re tiny, stomp on the bugs, and we even used a ‘magic’ wand to put a protective spell on her room.”
Parents can also help children cope with their fears by validating the fears and encouraging their children to express their feelings.
Yvonne, mother of the daughter with general fears, said, “From an early age, I have aimed to allow her to express her feelings and give her feelings a voice, so she felt understood.”
Yvonne said the emotional coaching method by John Gottman, Ph.D, described in his book Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child: The Heart of Parenting helped her teach her daughter how to recognize and express her emotions so she could better express her fears and emotions.
When Fears Become Something Bigger
Fears can sometimes turn into phobias, which can be challenging to treat. According to Dr. Stevens, “Phobias are usually more specific…they’re kind of an overreaction to a fear.” A phobia is an intense, compulsive, preoccupation with something that in reality is not threatening, according to Leta Bell and Dr. Stevens.
When a parent’s attempts to help a child cope with fear fail, both Dr. Stevens and Bell recommend that the parent contact a counselor experienced in fear reduction techniques. If the child’s fears start to impact daily life, where the child refuses to go to school because of the fear of being bullied or refuses to play outside because of the fear of being injured in a thunderstorm, it is time to seek professional help.
Advice for parents struggling to cope with their child’s fears
“Face your own fears and deal with them,” Yvonne said. “If you put all the focus on the child it will overwhelm them. Children mirror us.”
Carley’s advice was to step back and not blame yourself for your child’s struggles. “It’s important to remember that all children are hard-wired differently,” she said. “When we see our children struggling, it’s our work to try to figure out how to best support them and meet them where they are. Although I know there are not any big bugs attacking my daughter at night, I can tell her this a hundred times, but her imagination and fear makes this real to her. I have to respect that fear, even if I know and believe it’s not true, because it’s true to her. Together we will conquer the bugs, in fantasy, storytelling, or in my arms!”
“Show your child understanding, patience, and love,” Ardie said. “Deal with the fears as though they are your own. No matter how silly the fear seems to you, don’t ever trivialize your child’s fears and don’t ever use those fears to get a ‘funny’ reaction from your child.”
These mothers have worked to help their children overcome their fears by addressing their fears, validating their child’s feelings, and using creative ways to help their child cope with their fears.
Bell said, “One thing I really want to state is that when children are scared, it’s really important that parents believe them and listen to them. We’ve seen it all over the news where kids have committed suicide over the fear of being bullied. To address the fear, give the fear the attention that it needs. Never ignore a child’s fear or think it will just go away.”
What can make the child’s fear(s) worse?
- Ignoring the fear.
- Shaming the child for the fear.
- Talking about the child’s fears in front of other people.
- Telling the child they shouldn’t be scared.
- Allowing siblings or other family members to use the child’s fears to taunt them.
- Joking around about the child’s fears.
Source: Leta Bell, LPC and Dr. Kristin Stevens, M.D.
How parents can help the child positively cope with their fears.
- Validating the child’s fears.
- Reassuring the child that you’ll protect them.
- Helping the child use their imagination to overcome their fears. Children afraid of monster’s can be introduced to Elmo, “the friendly monster” to help lessen the power of their fear.
- Taking small steps to face their fears, in a safe environment. Parents of a child afraid of spiders can address this fear by showing their child cartoon drawings of “friendly” spiders, reading books about other kids who are afraid of spiders, or watching movies about “nice” spiders.
- Maintaining a healthy balance between overprotecting the child from their fears and dismissing the child’s fears.
Source: Leta Bell, LPC and Dr. Kristin Stevens, M.D.
Common Fears at Different Ages
- Infants (1-12 months) Separation from parents and fear of strangers.
- Toddlers (12-36 months) Noises, separation from parents, new babysitter, daycare, bed- time, toilet training, doctors, bathing, animals, and insects.
- Preschoolers (3-5 years) Fear of the dark, thunder, lightning, bodily harm, separation, being alone, large dogs, getting lost, noises, spiders, bugs, and monsters.
- School age (6-12 years) Fear of spiders, injury, dangers seen on TV, burglars, not having friends, bullies, divorce, and death of a parent.
- Adolescents (12-18) Rejection by peers, failure, mistakes, burglars, kidnapping, new situations, being alone, heights, school performance, plane or car wreck, war, and divorce.
Sources from: NDSU Children and Fear by Deb Gebeke, Family Science Specialist, at https://www.ag.ndsu.edu/publications