Not too long ago, a friend asked me for advice about how to help her 9-year old daughter who has developed a fear of death. This young girl expressed repeatedly to her mom that she was afraid her mom and dad were going to die and then what would happen to her. Her fear seemed to stem from her grandfather’s recent minor surgery but it was becoming an issue that was affecting her mood, behaviour, and sleep. My friend was concerned about how to approach this topic with her daughter as well as how to reassure and help her.
It is common for children to develop fears at different ages and the types of fears generally change over time. Importantly, fears are not necessarily bad.
Fears can be protective in that they can teach children to avoid certain dangers, such as touching a hot stove or running into a busy street. A phobia develops when a fear is persistent, intense, and unreasonable about a specific object or situation.
What Are Common Childhood Fears?
Infants and Toddlers:
Preschoolers (ages 3 to 6) have fears that are not usually based in reality:
School-Aged Children (ages 6 to 12) develop fears that reflect real-life circumstances:
How Do You Help Your Child?
It is important to talk to your child, really listen, and provide support. Their feelings are real and should be acknowledged. Have your child tell you exactly what he or she fears. Write out the fears and see if you can help your child identify the misperceptions or “story” that the brain is telling about the fear. Try to help your child challenge the “story” and come up with more accurate thoughts about the fear. Maybe have your child think about how friends or other children cope with the same situation. By even just talking with you about the fears, your child may perceive the fears as less powerful.
Teach your child some relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing and muscle relaxation. By slowing down the breath and inhaling and exhaling completely, your child will start to feel calmer and in greater control. Similarly, you can practice tensing and relaxing different muscles of the body to help your child learn to release stress in the body.
Teach your child how to boss back their worries and fears. Have your child practice talking back to their fears so that they feel empowered (e.g., “I’m okay. It won’t hurt me. My parents will let me know if something isn’t safe“). One way to do that is to help your child get angry towards the fear (e.g., “You’re not going to control me! I’m bigger and tougher than you!”) because when a different emotion competes with fear, it diminishes the fear.
If possible, try to find ways to add humour and fun into dealing with the fears. For example, sing a song, tell a story, make funny faces, or dance in the “monster-filled” or dark closet. Make silly drawings of the monsters. Be creative in finding ways to inject some fun into the feared situation.
Create a fear hierarchy and use systematic desensitization. That is, break down the feared situation into gradual steps. Rate the steps in terms of how scary each one is (on a scale of 1 to 10) and help your child to slowly face each step. Go at your child’s pace with what feels comfortable. Repeat each step until it no longer evokes anxiety before moving on to the next challenge. For example, for a fear of bees, the steps could be: looking at pictures of bees, doing research about bees, getting increasingly closer to a dead bee in a jar, holding the jar, spending time near flowers with live bees.
Practice often. All efforts to approach, instead of to avoid, the feared situation should be reinforced, praised, and rewarded. Make sure to celebrate your child’s successes.
In sum, it is normal for children to experience fears at different stages of their development. Most children will outgrow their fears and will not require professional intervention. Importantly, there are a variety of strategies that you, as a parent, can implement to help your child overcome their fears. There are also excellent recommended resources available to guide you as well as useful books for anxious children. However, when your child’s fears or phobia interferes with their day-to-day functioning, it may be best to see a psychologist for treatment.
As always, I welcome your comments, questions, and feedback.
Photos at top and bottom left courtesy of Stuart Miles / Freedigitalphotos.net
First photo at right courtesy of Prawny / Freedigitalphotos.net
Photo at right courtesy of David Castillo Dominici / Freedigitalphotos.net