Helping Children Conquer Their Fears
A child becomes afraid when circumstances beyond her control, or circumstances she doesn't understand, rock her fragile sense of safety. The process of development, birth, and growth in the first vulnerable years present many moments when a child's sense of safety is challenged. And although we consider ourselves an "advanced" society, many children still face deeply isolating and even life-threatening situations early in their lives. Damage is also done by the harshness, threats, and violence commonly aimed at young children in "children's" movies, cartoons, and fairy tales.
To Release Feelings of Fear, Your Child Will Choose a Pretext
The situations that install fear made the child feel helpless and powerless. To safely release the fearful feelings, she hangs her fears on a pretext that is ordinary and commonplace. This way, she can bring up the feelings without any chance of experiencing a real threat to her safety. As a child grows, her fears attach first to one pretext and then to another if she isn't able to get the help she needs. Your child is ready to release feelings of fear when she is acting deeply afraid of a harmless situation.
So, for instance, a toddler who was once treated in the emergency room for a second-degree burn may become terrified of having his mother brush his teeth. Or a child who spent a week in an isolette as an infant may collapse, "too weak" to take another step on a short family hike in the woods.
How Children Release Fear
We can help children with their fears in the play we do with them, and in how we handle the times when their fears overwhelm them.
Fear releases in laughter
Play that helps children overcome their fears starts by allowing a child "special time," during which the grownup does whatever the child wants to do (with older children, a limit on spending money is a good idea). You are the listener. Notice what your child loves to do, and support her with closeness and approval. During this time, look for opportunities to take the less powerful role.
If your child is pretending to go to work, playfully cry and beg her not to go. If your child wants to play chase, try to catch her, but fail most of the time. If your child asks to jump on the beds, playfully ask her to jump "carefully," with enough of a sparkle in your eye that she'll know it's OK to surprise and scare you with how high she can jump.
Your child's fears will release as she laughs while you play this less powerful role. The longer you play and elicit laughter in this way (tickling is not helpful), the bolder your child will become.
Reprinted with the permission of Hand in Hand Parenting. © 1997-2011 Hand in Hand
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