Fears (page 4)
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.
Most fears abate with time as children discover they can cope. They learn that parents always return, bad things won't happen because it's dark, ghosts and monsters are not real, etc. Remember that fears may appear when a child is attempting to deal with a transition or a particular stress in school or at home. A new school, a new baby, a move to a new home may trigger a re-appearance of an old fear or the emergence of a new one. But sometimes a child may show excessive fears, worry or other signs of stress, such as difficulty sleeping, undue anxiety about separation, withdrawal from new or previously enjoyed situations, or complaints of headaches or stomachaches.
When feelings and reactions become too strong and out of proportion to what's really going on, and the fears interfere with the child's life, it's time to speak openly with the child to try and ascertain what he's experiencing. It's also often helpful to speak a teacher or with other adults who have contact with your child to see if similar behaviors are occurring in other aspects of his life. If the symptoms are pervasive and persistent, consultation with a mental health professional is warranted.
Questions & answers
How can we help children develop realistic fears about real dangers? Isn't it important for children to know that there are real threats in life?
Children must be taught about safety skills such as bicycle rules, fire and disaster readiness, traffic regulations, seat belts, etc. These issues are also dealt with in schools and need to be reinforced at home. However, one should guard against encouraging unreasonable fears by assuring children that disasters happen infrequently and that all possible steps are being taken to insure their safety. Take the age of the child into consideration and don't tell them more than they need to know.
When a child has a tantrum about separating from her mother, can that be because her mother is too clingy?
Although anxiety about separation tends to run in families, it is not caused by clingy or neglectful parents. Parents don't want to see their children suffer. When a child is distressed, a parent's natural reaction is to provide comfort and reassurance. For the anxious child, however, such reassurance can inhibit learning to soothe one's self and to cope. If a parent finds him or herself always protecting and reassuring a child, the process of learning to master anxiety may be delayed or stopped. The difficulty is not necessarily due to the parent being too clingy, but is more likely due to the interaction of a child's distress with the parent's reaction.
A lot of children are afraid to go on the rides in the amusement park. When the other kids tease them and call them cry-babies, they just cry more. What can we do?
Teasing doesn't help. It just compounds the fear and may cause intense feelings of incompetence. He may learn to avoid rather than to confront his fears. A more helpful strategy would be explaining the situation to the other children and having the child approach the situation gradually with support and reassurance.
What about kids who are so scared of a lot of things they're afraid to leave the house even to go to a party?
When a child shows an exaggerated fear of a specific object or situation, he may develop what is called a phobia. A phobia can severely limit a child's activities. A child with a dog phobia, for example, may start to avoid dogs and then to avoid any situation outside of home in which he might possibly encounter a dog. Common phobias experienced by children are blood, dark, fire, germs, dirt, heights, insects, small or closed spaces, snakes, spiders or thunder.
Do scary movies and television shows make kids more afraid?
Parents, whenever possible, should monitor what their children watch. However, when a child actually sees a scary movie or television show, it's often helpful to talk about it, discuss what was scary, how television and movies use tricks and cameras to make things more scary, and what the characters might have done in the scary situation.
About the Author
Robin F. Goodman, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist specializing in bereavement issues.
References and Related Books
Monsters Under the Bed and Other Childhood Fears:
Helping Your Child Overcome Anxieties, Fears, and Phobias.
S.W. Garber, M.D. Garber, & R.F. Spitzman
Villard Books 1993
Keys to Parenting and Anxious Child
Barron's Educational Series 1996
Taming Monsters, Slaying Dragons:
The Revolutionary Family Approach to Overcoming Childhood Fears and Anxiety
J. Feiner & G. Yost
Arbor House 1998
Jessica and the Wolf: A Story for Children Who Have Bad Dreams
T. Lobby & T. Dixon
Magination Press 1990
Scary Night Visitors: A Story for Children with Bedtime Fears
I.W. Marcus, P. Marcus, & S. Jeschke
Magination Press 1991
About the NYU Child Study Center
The New York University Child Study Center is dedicated to increasing the awareness of child and adolescent psychiatric disorders and improving the research necessary to advance the prevention, identification, and treatment of these disorders on a national scale. The Center offers expert psychiatric services for children, adolescents, young adults, and families with emphasis on early diagnosis and intervention. The Center's mission is to bridge the gap between science and practice, integrating the finest research with patient care and state-of-the-art training utilizing the resources of the New York University School of Medicine. The Child Study Center was founded in 1997 and established as the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry within the NYU School of Medicine in 2006. For more information, please call us at (212) 263-6622 or visit us at www.aboutourkids.org.
Reprinted with the permission of the NYU Child Study Center. © NYU Child Study Center.
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