Dealing with Common Childhood Fears
Just about every kid has some kind of fear, whether it’s big barking dogs, monsters under the bed, or noisy and crowded birthday parties. Sometimes the fears are just a passing phase, but sometimes they can grow to be larger than life. How can you help your child calm his or her fears, and how do you know when to seek help?
Most likely, separation anxiety is one of the earliest fears you will notice in your child. Separation anxiety can begin in a child’s first year and may peak around age 18 months to two years old. It’s best to deal with separation anxiety by first teaching your little one about object permanence (the idea that objects are still there even though you can’t see them) by playing peek-a-boo or hiding a toy under a blanket. Then you can practice mini-separations by announcing that you’re going to be right back, going into another room, and coming back again. When it’s time to do real separations, like at daycare or preschool, make sure your child is healthy and well-rested, and keep your goodbyes brief and matter-of-fact. It’s important for them to understand the concept that even if Mommy leaves, she always comes back again.
Another early fear is a fear of the dark, which is related to separation anxiety. Helping them get confidence in bed at night is one of the most important lessons you can teach. Start by establishing a soothing, predictable bedtime routine, and making your final goodnight calm and brief. You can also help ease your child’s fears in a dark room by keeping a nightlight on, giving them a “lovey” or comfort object, and/or keeping the door slightly ajar.
As your children get older, they may develop fears about imaginary threats like monsters or the boogey man. These fears may build as their imaginations continue to develop, and then decrease as they slowly begin to understand the line between real and make-believe. If they express fears to you about imaginary things, the key is to treat it like a real fear and to give them sympathy and understanding, not ridicule. You can even help them conquer their fears by giving them special confidence-builders at night. (“I have heard that monsters are very scared of teddy bears, so I’m going to give you this teddy bear to sleep with, so that no monster will want to come near you.”)
Sometimes children develop fears that relate to specific scary encounters they might have had. Having a big dog snarl at them, losing mom’s hand at the crowded mall, getting startled by a loud vacuum cleaner – all of these encounters could lead to mini-phobias that may cause your child to avoid certain situations. Again, you should try to be understanding of their fears and treat them with respect. But don’t let their fears lead you into avoiding those situations. Try to re-introduce the scary situation slowly and tell them what is going to happen and how you know they will be protected. For example, you could go back to the mall at a time when it is not very crowded, and walk with them to the information office and rehearse what they should do if they ever get lost.
As kids get older, their fears grow a little more abstract and socially focused. They might fear getting laughed at in class, for example, or being picked last for a team. One of the best ways to help your child tackle these fears is to talk it out. Spend some time with them learning what they fear and why. Then help them problem-solve about ways to keep the feared outcome from happening, and how to deal with it if it does happen. Once your child has some concrete tools to deal with the situation, the fears should ease up.
When should you be concerned? If the phobia has taken over to the point where your child cannot function normally on a day-to-day basis or if it seems like your child’s fears are vastly out of proportion with his or her peers, it’s time to consult your pediatrician. Otherwise, a little patience and understanding is probably all it will take to help your child through this passing stage.