Helping children overcome fear
A child might become fearful of anything based on his/her experience(s) in life. The fear can be of darkness, closed spaces, strangers, school, road accidents, separation, abandonment, speaking to an audience or in a social gathering, falling from height, drowning, a particular place or a person. A fearful child may develop stress or anxiety disorders and even depression, or may have the negative effects of fear affecting the later stages of life, if the problem of fearfulness is not addressed early.
A fearful child
Nature has programmed us to develop fear to help us stay safe and avoid situations that can put a person in danger or something s/he wants to desperately avoid. A child who fears a particular person may start avoiding contact with him/her, such as a bully at school may instill a fear of going to school. Child abuse can also be one of the reasons a child can develop fear of a person or a place.
A fearful child may show his/her fear by
- Withdrawing self from various situations in day-to-day life.
- Problems going to sleep, bedwetting
- Showing tantrums in a particular situation that creates the feeling of fear
- Sudden changes in appetite and/or weight
- Excessive clinginess, crying, whining, thumb sucking
- Panic attacks (occur mostly when the child repeatedly faces the same fearful situation) which show at least four of symptoms like sweating, trembling, increased heart rate, increased breathing rate, choking, dizziness or numbness. A child having a panic attack is often unable to tell the reason for his fear.
Causes of fear
Fear in children can be caused by any event or experience which can be disturbing or traumatic. Such experiences can be from an abusive relationship, observing fear in others, lack of good communication between family members where the child is not able to express feelings or ask questions, family feuds, loss of a loved one, road accidents, long periods of separation from parents, parental neglect etc.
A child’s imagination can also cause fear by relating similar real-life situations with those from a story or experiences of others. e.g. fear of monsters in darkness, ghosts, UFOs, shadows or creatures etc.
Preventing, managing and controlling fear
Some ways to avoid development of feeling of fear in children can be by:
- Preventing situations that can cause feeling of insecurity and fear in children. It has been observed that depression, anxiety during pregnancy can affect the fetus’s development as the stress hormones pass on to the fetus. Another observation has been that the separation from parents for a long duration during the preschool age is known to increase incidence of insecurity and fear of abandonment, because children at this age cannot distinguish belief from reality.
- Watching of or listening about violence or otherwise disturbing events.
- Closely observing behavior and helping a child cope during major changes in life. E.g. change of school, moving to a new house, new sibling, divorce between parents, new step parent etc.
- Avoiding overprotecting children from stressful situations. Overprotecting a child is known to hinder development and learning of skills to face stressful situations in life.
- Preventing passing on your own fears to the child.
Managing and controlling fear:
If a child has developed fear, it can be managed by identifying the signs of fear, the cause of fear, and then working to eliminate the feeling by any of the following methods:
- Let the child face similar but less fearful situation to begin with, then gradually increase it towards the real situation. E.g. fear of talking to an audience can be eliminated by letting the child speak to a smaller and friendly audience at first, and then gradually change the audience according to his/her progress.
- Ask the child how s/he would feel better in the fearful situation and what he would like to do to feel better.
- Practice relaxation techniques like deep breathing or imagining a fun filled environment.
- Divert the child’s attention from the fear by telling a story involving courage and bravery.
- Support your child while s/he’s feeling scared by comforting him/her, by hugging, saying comforting words, or taking him/her away from the situation really helps the child feel comfortable and feel secure.
Ask for an expert’s help in case your child is showing atypical response to the type of fear, or when the fear is affecting his day-to-day life and social development, if the fear is baseless, or when the fear is becoming severe even after all the support and efforts.
- Raising an optimistic child by Bob Murray, Ph.D., And Alicia Fortinberry
- The Big Book of Parenting Solutions by Michele Borba, Ed.D.