It’s typical for kids to be afraid of the dark, feel especially shy or fearful around new people, or tell their parents they cannot fall asleep because monsters are under the bed. These are common childhood fears, but how do you address them appropriately without exacerbating the fear? Also, when should a parent be concerned a common fear is more than just a fear, and what do you do then?
Calm Down Worries
It’s natural to want to come to the rescue and address your child’s fears.
Parents should avoid using tone or body language implying that their child should be worried. They should model confident behavior and avoid dismissing their child’s fear by telling them they will be fine or that there’s nothing to worry about.
Take time to listen to and acknowledge your child’s fear. Children often want to talk about their concerns and feel heard and understood. Caregivers do not need to jump in and “fix” the problem immediately.
An example conversation could be: “This does sound hard and it’s OK to be scared. When I feel nervous, I take a few deep breaths to help calm down.”
Overall, talk to your child; acknowledge the fear while simultaneously avoiding increasing or reinforcing the fear.
“Parents and primary caregivers can find solace in knowing fears can wax and wane over the course of development, but generally decrease as the child gets older,” says Jamie K. Travis, Ph.D., pediatric psychologist at Akron Children’s Hospital. “Oftentimes, simple, sensitive and straightforward parenting is very effective at resolving and managing most childhood fears.”
When Fears Turn into Phobias
The AAP describes phobias as strong and irrational fears that can become “persistent and debilitating, significantly influencing and interfering with a child’s usual daily activities.”
For example, fearing dogs so much that a child refuses to go outdoors in case a dog could be there.
Phobias also can cause physical symptoms like headaches or stomach pains and eventually lead a child to withdraw into their own world, becoming clinically depressed.
Travis recommends that parents seek an evaluation by a behavioral health specialist if their child exhibits anxieties to a degree where it impacts daily functioning, like the “ability to learn, interact with others, and engage with family, or overall family functioning.”
Also, exposure therapy often is employed to treat common fears and phobias. This entails exposing children to their fear through small, nonthreatening doses. For example, a child who is afraid of bugs may first talk about the fear, then look at pictures of insects, then a video of bugs, observe bugs from a safe distance, and finally spend some time in the presence of bugs with a parent or therapist next to them. With this work, a child will eventually be able to handle exposure to bugs in the daily life without debilitating fear.
While this process sounds like common sense and seems easy to carry out, it should be done only under the supervision of a professional, according to the AAP.
Did you know that fears are not innately bad? In truth, fear serves a purpose to warn children and adults alike to use caution and protect themselves in a truly dangerous situation. “Fears are a completely normal part of childhood,” says Jamie K. Travis, Ph.D., pediatric psychologist at Akron Children’s Hospital, who provides a helpful list of fears many children will experience:
- separating from their caregivers
- being alone
- being in the dark
- sudden, loud or unfamiliar noises (e.g., thunderstorms)
- imaginary creatures (e.g., monsters, ghosts)
- dogs or large animals
- going to the doctor or getting shots
- death or the health of others
- meeting new people
- failing or being rejected
- trying new things (e.g., attending a new school)