March 6, 2023
How to Help Children Manage Fears
“I can’t go to sleep without my nightlight,” “I’m scared of school,” or “Check one more time for the monster.”
As parents, you may have heard these statements and similar ones multiple times, especially when it is time for school or bedtime. As parents, we may try explaining to our children that “monsters aren’t real” or “I know you are scared, but you need to get on the bus.” However, while a fear of monsters may seem irrational to us, your child’s fear of monsters is as real to them as you being fearful of a big meeting you have at work or having an interview for a job. It can be challenging and time-consuming as a parent to address our children’s fears and to help them cope with them. However, it is critical to address these skills at a younger age so that when fears arise in the future and do become more realistic, they feel prepared to handle them. The importance of addressing fears in our children is validation, exploring the fear, and teaching them coping strategies to help them work through it.
Ways to work through your child's fears can include but are not limited to:
- Identifying and understanding the fear: some children can explain they fear monsters under their bed, loud noises during a storm, or going to school. However, sometimes our children can display their fears through behaviors like engaging in tantrums or putting their hands over their ears when they hear loud noises. There is a reason behind the behavior, which can be linked to a fear your child has, which could be answered by you asking, "Is there something that is scaring you" and "why does it scare you."
- Validating your child's fears: The more imaginative a child is, the more realistic the monster under the bed or in the closet becomes. As a parent, telling your child, "I can see why you are scared" or "I used to be scared too when I heard thunder" can help them feel understood, and allow them to trust you and give you the control to help them work through it.
- Finding the right coping tools: For each fear, there may be a specific coping skill your child can engage in to help overcome it. Finding the right coping skill can be through trial and error and can require patience and consistency. Coping strategies can range from breathing techniques, positive self-talking such as "I can do this," or a hands-on approach. A hands-on approach can include going on a monster hunt and making sure all the monsters are out of the room before bedtime or getting a night light with stars on the ceiling to help make the room less dark and a calming space for them.
- Provide positive reinforcement: When we see progress from our children overcoming their fears, we can positively reinforce them through praise, a sticker on their chart, or a special treat/present. When our children see they are acknowledged and praised, they are more likely to continue working to overcome their fear.
Children having fears such as scary movies, going to the doctor, or a test in school is all part of normal development for a child. From a young age, our children become fearful of the unknown, and while we can use these strategies to help them work through their fear, sometimes it may not work, and your child needs to become resilient to the fear on their own. However, it is essential to know that if fear affects your child’s functioning, it may be time to seek professional help. Signs may include panic attacks, inability to engage in activities, tantrums or a meltdown, or becoming fixated on the fear even if the trigger isn’t present.
Additional resource to help address children’s fears:
Tips for Comforting a Nervous Child | Child Development (pathways.org)
Help Your Child Overcome Their Fears - The New York Times (nytimes.com)