by Lisa Medoff
Dear Dr. Medoff,
My daughter is afraid of a lot of things. How can I get her to be braver?From, Greta
It is difficult when your child exhibits fearful behavior, not only because you do not like to see her feeling scared, but also because you have a desire to raise a strong child who can approach new situations with confidence. Therefore it can be hard to remain calm when you see that your child is easily frightened; you may either have a tendency to rush in to shelter her from the source of those fears, or on the other end of the spectrum, you may react angrily because you are frustrated with her constant anxiety. However, it is important to strike a good balance between these two types of reactions. If you can show your child that you understand her fears, but can also teach her how to handle them in a healthy and independent manner, you will be giving her the tools that she needs to deal with most of the worries that will arise in her life.
Remember that a certain level of fear is central to survival for all of us. All children are fearful of things that indicate danger until they learn for themselves that the thing will not harm them. Therefore, most childhood fears are not a cause for major concern, since they tend to diminish with age as children learn more about the world around them. Here are some ideas to help your child learn to cope with fears:
- Many things that scare children can seem irrational or silly to adults, but try to keep in mind that the threat seems very real to your child. Do not brush her off or get upset with her. Instead of simply saying, “It won’t hurt you,” try saying, “I know you feel scared right now,” and give a brief and honest explanation of why the scary thing is happening.
- Younger children tend to be more afraid of the unfamiliar and unpredictable, such as sudden, loud noises, strange animals, or new environments. Try to keep their worlds as safe and predictable as possible. If the majority of their time is spent in a calm, predictable environment, they will be able to handle the occasional scary event.
- Your children may not have the skills to be able to tell you exactly what is scaring them, and/or what would help ease their anxiety. Try to think back to when the fear started. What changed in your child’s life? Try to put yourself in your child’s place – what would scare you if you were that small and had little life experience? What would make you feel better?
- Young children have a hard time making logical connections, so you need to help them understand. For example, explain that water gets sucked down the drain, but children are too big to fit through the holes. Outside of bath time, experiment together to see that bath toys and other large objects cannot fit through the drain.
- You may have to make do with simple solutions, such as removing a painting that is scary or refraining from vacuuming while your child is around. Slowly reintroduce the scary thing every few weeks so that your child can get used to it and start to see that it will not harm her.
- Try to shift your child’s view on the subject and expose her to more pleasant aspects of what is feared. For example, if your child is afraid of dogs, read books about friendly dogs and try to expose your child to small, gentle, calm dogs in small doses.
- Do not get in the habit of making a big deal of fearful episodes or nightmares. For example, in the case of nightmares, soothe your child for a few minutes, and then make sure she returns to her own bed. Tell her that you know she will be fine, but stick to the limits that you set about how long you will spend comforting her before returning to your own bed.
- Teach your child how to relax herself, such as focusing on slowing down her breathing by slowly counting to 10 and taking a deep breath for each number. Give her a short phrase to repeat such as, “I’m okay. It can’t hurt me. I’m okay…” Ask her to try calming herself before she comes to you. Give her lots of positive attention for trying to soothe herself.
- Carefully monitor the media that your child is exposed to so that she is not seeing or hearing about concepts that are too overwhelming for her. Be aware that she may be overhearing when you listen to the news or talk about scary world events.
- Let your child see you being a good role model. Monitor yourself for overreactions to things that scare you. If you are worried about something, admit it, and then tell your child that you are going to be brave and try it anyway.
- Talk to your child’s teacher. Explain your concerns and ask the teacher what she does in class when children are fearful of certain situations. Try to follow the same guidelines so that your child experiences consistency between home and school.
If your child’s fears seem to be growing with age, rather than fading away, and/or seriously impact her daily functioning, such as her ability to go to the school or participate in social activities, contact your pediatrician or a mental health professional who specializes in childhood anxiety and phobias.
Lisa Medoff, Ph.D holds a B.A. in psychology, a master's degree in school counseling, and a Ph.D. in child and adolescent development. Although she’s worked with all types of children, for the past eight years, she has worked with students with special needs, such as ADHD, learning disabilities, depression and anxiety. She has taught courses in psychology and child/adolescent development at Stanford University, Santa Clara University, San Jose State University, and DeAnza College. She currently works as a resilience consultant for the non-profit Cleo Eulau Center, helping teachers at a low-performing elementary school understand issues of connectedness, special needs, and cultural sensitivity in order to build resilience in their students.