5 Ways to Help Kids Face Their Fears
It’s the peace and quiet of children finally sleeping. But mid-way through your exhaled sigh of relief, you hear a tiny voice chirping. “Mom! Dad! I’m scared!”
It’s nothing new–over the years, you’ve checked for monsters under the bed, velociraptors in the closet, aliens outside the window, and a giant, creepy clown that supposedly visits your child’s room at night.
Even your best detective skills have never turned up anything more than a couple of dust bunnies and a missing sock.
Still, your kiddo remains doubtful.
Common childhood fears aren’t limited to nighttime, of course–many kids are afraid of everything from swimming pools (what if there’s a shark in the deep end?!?) to thunderstorms (what if the lightning gets me?!?) to spiders (can you blame them?).
Some fears may be more legitimate than others, but all are very real to your child, whether they’re two or twelve.
If there’s a fierce imaginary something plaguing your house, don’t worry: your kids don’t have to grow up unreasonably afraid of the dark, or anything else!
(Looking for ways to encourage your kids? Our FREE list of 27 Encouraging Words and Phrases is full of helpful suggestions.)
The five strategies below will help give your child the confidence and courage to brave the bogeymen–alongside life’s weightiest, most realistic fears.
1. Validate, Rather Than Brush Off, Your Child’s Feelings
You may feel too busy, frustrated, or exhausted to talk about zombies, vampires, or any of the common antagonists of macabre fiction again. (“They’re just made-up creatures, Honey!”)
But younger children, especially, are still making sense of the world and sorting reality from fantasy. That distinction is understandably murky.
It’s our job to reassure our kiddos that certain threats are far less plausible than others (or just plain impossible), but we can accompany that assurance with a pang of empathy, too. It’s hard to be little and awash with hundreds or more images–and verbal warnings–of potential dangers each day.
Kids aren’t silly for resorting to fight and flight while processing everything; fear first, in-depth reasoning later. (Even though you know your kid won’t get food poisoning from that bite of broccoli, he’s not so sure…)
And, of course, fear can be useful. Its purpose in survival is crystal clear.
Rather than dismissing our children’s anxieties, it helps to respond with empathy and encouragement.
Lending a sympathetic tone doesn’t mean playing into the anxiety or the fear. It just means we’re letting our kids know we understand how it feels to be scared–and it’s nothing to be ashamed of.
2. Prompt Your Kids to Problem-Solve Solutions With Confidence
After showing sympathy, it’s time to express that we’re confident our kids can overcome their fears.
Neuroscientists and psychologists agree that while some fear is inherent, much of it is also learned.
The fantastic news is that this allows us more control over our fears. And we can all agree that having more control is an advantageous place to be.
In fact, kids who have a little more control over their lives–whether it’s making a few age-appropriate decisions throughout the day or being given a chance to voice their opinions–feel increased levels of belonging and significance. This naturally raises their feelings of validation and confidence.
And, as you can imagine, confident kids are more willing to take healthy risks and work bravely through their fears.
Let’s say your 6-year-old approaches you–having been exposed to something his old sister was watching–and wants you to comfort him. He relies on you to manage his fear and protect him.
This is natural, of course. We are the parents, and we protect our children! But it’s never too soon to introduce our kids to tools that will help them problem-solve fearful situations for themselves.
You can kneel down to your 6-year-old and say, “When you see something on the TV that bothers you, you change the channel or walk away!” Or, “You can remind yourself that those are actors, and they are just pretending!”
Of course, not all fears are based on something fake. One day, your 11-year-old might mention a bullying incident at school. She’s afraid to go back to that same class and be humiliated–or even physically assaulted.
First off–it’s amazing that she’s going to you for protection. It means she trusts you and your guidance. You’ll offer it gladly, of course, and assist in any way you can. (You always want to keep those lines of communication open!)
But situations like these are also a wonderful opportunity to coach our kids on problem-solving–like how to handle conflicts with other individuals.
With bullying, solutions might include ignoring taunts, talking to school administrators, learning self-defense, involving counselors, or even going to the police. You can present multiple options and train your kids on the best course of action for the circumstance.
Because next time, you may not be available or nearby to help.
Any time we emphasize problem-solving, we’re giving our children a chance not to sidestep fear and its negative effects, but face and work through it.
3. Slow-Roll Exposure to Scarier Shows
We can’t control everything our children are exposed to. Even kid-friendly movies have a token bad guy. It’s part of life.
But we can manage a lot of the information that comes through their screens. This includes installing smartphone, television, and tablet controls.
And, for what we can’t monitor, we can provide context and critical thinking.
Remember–everything our children watch on television or the Internet will be duly processed in their information-mining minds.
While watching something scary, we can put things in perspective. It could be: “those soldiers died for a good cause,” or, “this has been exaggerated to make the story more dramatic” (and for the littlest tykes, “Ursula can’t actually steal Ariel’s voice and turn King Triton into a sea polyp– that’s silly!”).
If kids are watching something scary based on a true story–let’s say a war movie–we can talk about how the real-life characters showed avarice, bravery, and everything in between. It’s a golden opportunity to talk about morals and your family’s belief system–both of which offer a foundational stronghold for facing fears.
The ultimate intent isn’t to keep our children ignorant of all real-life ills: it’s to slowly expose them to potential harm. This can help them put the pieces of a sometimes tragic world into place without excessive worry and super sleepless nights.
While we may frantically yell at them to stay out of the street or stay far from a cliff’s edge, nothing sudden and/or traumatic has to be seen on screen for them to come to terms with hard realities.
And, although conquering fear is great–like Bruce Wayne embodying Batman to overcome his fear of bats–eliminating it doesn’t have to be the ultimate goal. A little fear kept in check can be useful when it comes to procrastinating over an exam, driving carefully in the snow, and talking to strangers, amongst other things.
We just don’t want fear to be debilitating: especially in a world where kids are reporting increased anxiety over everything from test scores to competitive try-outs. The aim is to help our kids find a healthy balance.
4. Increase Quality-Time Comforts
Children that feel safe and secure–both in body and in mind–are likely to brave their fears with greater ease.
In our online Positive Parenting Solutions® course, we argue that the best way to give kids this deep-seated comfort is through MIND, BODY AND SOUL TIME® activities (MBST).
When kids are leery of bedtime and obsess over fears at night, evening MBST can give them a sense of being “armed”–protectively–with love. They may fall asleep with less struggle and sleep far more peacefully.
Whether their apprehension about bedtime stems from separation anxiety, night terrors, or an oh-so-common fear of the dark, adding MBST into bedtime routines distracts kids from scarier “what if” thinking. Not only does it provide a tremendous sense of comfort, but it also boosts well-being and confidence.
All you need for a successful MBST session is 10-15 minutes of your undistracted time. Your child gets to choose the activity, and then you just need to label it–both before and after the fact.
“I’m so happy to start our ‘mommy/daughter’ time. It’s my favorite time of day.” And, “I really enjoyed our ‘daddy/dude’ session this evening!”
Giving MBST a special name helps hone in on the fact that you are dedicating this undivided time to your kids. Your kids will understand your commitment and feel all the more grateful.
The only difference between daytime and bedtime MBST activities is that evening MBST is ideally calm and relaxed. This might mean you read aloud together, talk to one another about your day, play 20 questions, or even build a comfy pillow fort atop their bed. You just don’t want your kiddo getting too amped up before sleep.
Even if you don’t have time for MBST every evening, eliminating anxiety, fighting, and power struggles as much as possible before bedtime helps kids fall asleep faster.
And, the next day? Well-rested kids are better equipped, both emotionally and physically, to face fears head-on.
5. Differentiate Between Real and Exaggerated Fears
Sometimes, kids hyperbolize their fears to get our attention. Delayed bedtime tactics like, “Can you check my closet for monsters again,” or a request like, “Can I sleep next to you tonight, just this once?” could be classic examples.
This is especially likely if kids are feeling unnoticed or aren’t getting that daily dose of MIND, BODY AND SOUL TIME® bonding.
You know your child best. You can probably tell if the fear is contrived or in earnest. If not, there are certain signs to look out for.
If your family has recently faced trauma, or your kids feel consistently or uncontrollably upset, afraid, or anxious, you may want to seek help. The fear could be situational (and still in need of attention) or could signal an underlying anxiety disorder or phobia.
Plenty of counselors and psychologists specialize in treating fear in children, so if in doubt, don’t hesitate to reach out for help.
Fear may be an unfortunate reality, but in our children’s daily lives, it should never be paralyzing. With these strategies, you can help your kids tame their deepest concerns and grow increasingly self-assured of their inner strength.
From toddlers to teens, our kids are warriors. Let’s help them see that.
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