Children have a lot of fears, especially between the birth and 7. Often, by 7, they have outgrown many of their fears. Parents magazine recently had an article about many of the common fears experienced by children, finding that there are 7 common fears. These fears include: the dark, thunderstorms, monsters, costumed characters, doctors/dentists, dogs, new babysitters.
Below I answer some common questions that parents ask about fears, and address each fear with strategies parents can use to help their kids most effectively. I also have linked to the segment I did on CBS’ The Early Show, Saturday morning.
How common is it that children have anxieties and fears?
Almost all children experience some sort of anxiety at some point in their life and it is generally considered to be a normal part of their development. The fears only become abnormal if they are persistent, begin to interfere with the child’s normal activities and if the child cannot be distracted from it. Overall, the thing to remember, is that it is normal for kids to have fears at different points in their lives
Why do they seem so scared?
Anxiety is uncomfortable to anyone who experiences it, regardless of age. Children do not have the cognitive abilities or skills to navigate intense anxiety, causing them to appear incredibly frightened and overwhelmed. Learning how to manage their worries helps prepare them for handling unpredictable and difficult situations later in life.
How do you calm them down?
Firstly, it’s not helpful to say “don’t worry.” Your child is already worried. Telling them not to can make your child feel unheard and ignored. It’s important to respect your child’s feelings. Ask why your child is feeling anxious and talk about it. Try to avoid reinforcing your child’s avoidance. You don’t want to force him into something he doesn’t want to do AND you don’t want him to avoid the things he is afraid of. Encourage him to interact slowly, at his own pace, with situations that may be frightening. Support him with praise and reinforcement as he learns to master his fears.Provide reassurance and comfort to your child as you help her face her fears. Avoidance isn’t a way to master one’s anxiety, and it’s a great opportunity to work with your child on building a sense of competence as you help her navigate her worry.
How do you explain everything’s going to be OK?
Remind your child of other times that situations were similar and how everything was okay then, thus we can assume that things will be okay now. If your child continues to ask if it will be, be aware of your own frustrations, and continue to provide reassurance and support.
Is this just a stage?
Different fears appear at different ages. Developmentally, fears and anxieties are normal and they often increase or shift at times of stress or change. For example, a child may have a fear of the dark develop as he moves from his crib to a toddler bed. The transition is scary, and fears develop around the stress. Most children will grow our of their fears, although there is no guarantee that another fear won’t develop. Generally, most children move past their fears while in elementary school.
Why are these fears the most common among kids?
We generally fear what we don’t understand. Kids are constantly exposed to situations that they are tying to make sense of, and thus, fear develops.
Fear Factor: NATURAL DISASTERS, THUNDER STORMS
Unknown Situations Cause Stress
Natural Disasters occur often, and children see them on the news, discuss them in school and hear adults talking about them. Situations like the oil spill in the gulf are confusing for children and may create anxiety, as children worry about whether that situation can happen near them or their loved ones, and if they are safe. Children’s questions about these types of situations may be difficult to answer, and it’s important to be honest and open, while simultaneously reassuring, regarding these situations.
Wait until your child brings up the topic, or for an opportune time to discuss it. Some children need to process information and then start the conversation and feel more anxiety-ridden when it is started for them.
Be aware of the developmental level of your child. Some young children, who see the disaster over and over on the television, may think it is happening repeatedly. Be sure to explain that it is the same footage being repeated.
Parents should provide reassurance that while the natural disaster, such as the oil spill, is happening some places, people are working to ensure that it doesn’t happen again (may want to have information about how the government or agencies are working on that). Also, it’s important to keep routines the same. Predictability helps decrease anxiety.
Provide realistic information. Be honest. And, turn the fear into something positive by encouraging your child to do something to help.
Loud, unpredictable noise is disconcerting for anyone, especially children. They often don’t know what to make of it and don’t know how to interpret them.
When thunderstorms hit, reassure your child that all is okay; validate their fears with understanding (“that was loud and surprised me too!”) and create an opportunity to provide safety (cuddle together while listening to the storm and counting the thunder claps).
Fear Factor: MONSTERS, DARK
Kids Can’t Tell Reality from Fantasy
At early ages, kids have difficulty knowing what’s real and what’s not. It’s important that parents problem-solve ways with their children that reinforce safety. For example, with regard to monsters, remind your child that only friendly people live in the house, and check the closets, under the bed, etc, to show him that everything is okay..
This also goes for the dark. Despite knowing all the things in the room when the light is on, kids often feel out of control once it is off. They seem to forget what is there when they can’t see it. Again, a night light in transition to increased comfort is a great intervention.
Fear Factor: COSTUME CHARACTERS, DOCTORS/DENTISTS
Kids Need To See Faces
Children need to have eye contact and to see faces to determine what emotions others are having and if the person is friendly or not. Kids are very intuitive and feel more comfortable when they can see someone’s eyes and face.
Similarly, doctors and dentists have children in a vulnerable position (lying on a table or in a chair, and leaning over them or approaching them from the side), and kids may not be able to read their facial expressions.
It’s important to provide information to your children about what to expect in all situations. If anxious around costumed characters, remove your child, discuss her fears openly and leave if the feelings of discomfort persist. Before attending a doctor’s appointment, talk about what will happen, maybe even practice with a doll or teddy bear. At the pediatrician or dentist, bring a special toy or blanket that will distract your child. Ask the doctor to explain what is going to happen before it does and reward your child with a special treat or activity afterward (something to look forward to after the appointment).
Fear Factor: BABYSITTERS, DOGS• Your Fear Feeds Their Anxiety
Kids are really very aware of their surroundings. If parents are feeling anxious, chances are their kids know and will feel nervous as well. Hiring a new babysitter to care for your child in your absence, is never easy…not for the parent and possibly not for the child. It’s developmentally appropriate for kids to have difficulty with the new babysitter, as it is outside of their comfort zone.
For babies, they are aware that this is a new person, and not someone they know. For toddlers and younger children, they are afraid their mom/dad won’t come back. This is all healthy and ok! When going out for the evening, it’s important to make the transition as smooth as possible. Have the sitter come over while you are still there and get to know your child while you are still home. Slowly go about your business of getting ready to leave and then do so. Make sure you say goodbye (don’t drag it out) and then head out. Maybe even get a special activity for the sitter and your child to make it extra great.
Parents also set the tone for animals with kids, especially dogs. In some way, it’s a good survival skill to be afraid of dogs, because they are unpredictable, can be loud, will bark, lick, etc. Kids don’t always know what to do with that. If parent are afraid of dogs, kids will be too. Reassure you child that the dog is okay and don’t force her to pet the dog if she doesn’t want to.
Most importantly, teach your child how to act around dogs.
Website stream, after interview: