Fears (page 2)
Fears are a normal part of growing up. Everyone has them to some degree. Helping children learn to cope with fear is what's important. As children learn how to master fears, they become more competent in dealing with other life challenges and new situations. If fears become disabling and intrude on a child's life and development, it's time to seek help.
Real Life Stories
The mother of 5-year-old Louisa, says "I go through a routine every night with Louisa. She always makes the same requests when I put her to bed; don't let the bed go up in the sky. Don't let the moon break the house. Don't let any alligators, cows, or snakes into the house.
Scott, age 4, is afraid of the banging of the radiator in his room, the wail of a siren, the noise of thunder.
Serena, age 5, and her mother look under her bed every night to make sure there are no witches hiding there.
Fears: a closer look
Human beings can't avoid being anxious or fearful or worried at various times in their lives. Most adults know that the fear will pass despite the immediate discomfort. Children, however, are not so sure. Most children experience some fears as they grow; it may be a fear of a ghost under the bed or a fear that their parents may leave them. Although fears are a normal part of development, children deal with them differently. Some children are daredevils; they rush in to a new situation fearlessly. Some children are more cautious and like to look things over first. Some children are too fearful to try anything new.
The nature of fears and the ways in which children cope with them change with age. To the younger child a minor danger can be seen as an enormous threat. Young fearful children rely on adults to soothe them, but with increasing age, children's increased ability to understand and to use logical reasoning helps them learn to cope with fears. Mastering fears can help a child deal with dangers rather than retreat from them.
What are kids afraid of? Every child has his own special fears, but certain fears are more prevalent at specific ages.
- 5 to l0 months -The first fear - stranger anxiety - usually appears at this age. The infant begins to distinguish between people she knows and those she doesn't know or doesn't remember.
- 12 to l8 months - Anxiety about separation is common. A toddler may worry about leaving a parent to begin nursery school or day care. This fear usually disappears within a short time as the child begins to feel more comfortable in the new setting. Separation anxiety may re-occur or develop at a later age when a child has experienced stress, such as the death of a relative or pet, an illness or a major change such as moving or divorce.
- 2 1/2 to 4 years - Toddlers are learning to make sense of the world and are not always clear about the difference between fantasy and reality. They're apt to be afraid of monsters, the dark, and other imagined threats. Some children at this age are afraid of being hurt, and a sudden loud noise, like a vacuum cleaner, can be scary.
- 4 to 6 years - The most common fears are going to school, the dark, water, heights, getting stuck in an elevator, getting lost, and small animals.
- 6 to 11 years - The most common fears are dentists, doctors, thunder and lightning, airplanes, and burglers.
- 12 years and up - The most common fears at this age revolve around social and evaluative situations: taking tests, giving oral reports, being teased or rejected by others, being embarrassed, dating, and encountering situations requiring assertiveness.
What to do
- Take your child's fears seriously. Let her know you care and that her feelings are okay.
- Help her to get used to the feared situation gradually. Some children need more time than others to enter a new situation. Don't push or force her, but use encouragement and praise for coping and approaching a feared situation. For example, if your child is afraid of dogs, read stories and watch a TV show about dogs and then get her acquainted with a small, friendly dog. If she's afraid of doctor visits, plan a doctor visit when she's well and doesn't need an examination or injection. If she's afraid of the dark, provide a nightlight or soft music so she doesn't feel lonely. If she's afraid of the toilet flushing or the drain in the bathtub, provide a potty first and make bath time fun with water toys.
- Don't try to dismiss her fears with statements such as "Don't be silly; there's nothing to be afraid of." Rather, offer support by statements such as "I know you're afraid of going in to the water; I'll be with you to make sure you're all right."
- Don't try to tease him out of the fear or equate not being afraid with being "a big boy" or a "grown-up."
- Don't handle a serious fear by avoiding it. Help the child master it. Have him think of ways to handle the fear. Capitalize on the child's imagination by having her conjure up an image, such as a super-hero protector or a container to put her fears in.
- A child's fear will abate if he feels he has some control over it. Remind him that he can close his eyes or he can turn off the television set if a cartoon is too scary. For some children, letting them know in advance what to expect in a new situation helps them deal with their concerns.
- Help her understand that some fears are appropriate; we need to protect ourselves from danger; we don't touch a hot stove; we don't run in front of a swing or an oncoming bus.
- Don't let up on discipline and limits in order to appease a fearful child. The child needs the security of limits. Provide safe boundaries within which the child can function. Reinforce coping; don't rescue.
- Be aware of your own reactions; children are tuned in to their parents' moods and fear can be contagious. Don't read more into a fear than is really there, and understand that fears may not disappear overnight.
Reprinted with the permission of the NYU Child Study Center. © NYU Child Study Center.
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