Strategies for Dealing With Childhood Fears
Children have many common childhood fears that are not of major concern. Strong and consistent fears, though, results in children being unable to function (Wachs & Gruen, 1982). For example, a child who is extremely afraid of dogs might refuse to leave the house. Extreme fears lead children to exhibit nervous mannerisms such as stuttering, biting their nails, and sucking their thumbs. Deep-rooted fears may lead to shyness and withdrawal or unexpected acts of aggression (Blechman, 1985). Unexpected acts of aggression can also result from reactions to fears, such as turning a child into a bully because the child was afraid of a bully.
Most fears come from experiences children cannot understand that seem threatening or from seeing someone else respond fearfully. Children who lack confidence, are clumsy, or have developmental delays are also likely to have a greater number of fears. In addition, lack of communication skills prevents children from asking questions or understanding explanations and contribute to fears. Children with motor delays more frequently fall, bump into things, or have things hit them. These experiences can contribute to their fears (Miller, 1980).
Children also acquire fears modeled by other people (Becker, 1990). For example, if a child's father is afraid of heights the child may develop such a fear. Children find it comforting, though, to learn that adults are sometimes afraid and that they learned to overcome their fears. The subject matter of television shows and books should be monitored because fears often develop after watching or hearing a scary story (Sherburne, et al., 1988). Children have a very vivid imagination and sometimes believe things are real when they are not. Talking with an adult often helps children separate fantasy from reality.
Family tension, including fighting, separation, divorce, and drug abuse, often contributes to fears and insecurities (Strain, et al., 1992). Also, overanxious adults constantly warning children to be careful contribute to fears. Appropriate levels of fear, however, are useful because they suggest the need to be cautious and can help prevent children from being harmed. Children who are autistic frequently develop intense and unfounded fears and often do not develop fears of real dangers, such as jumping into a pool of water or walking along a narrow ledge. Special precautions should be taken to help keep children safe who do not develop appropriate fears.
Although each child is unique, each age tends to brings on characteristic fears. The table below lists several common fears birth though five years old. To help children overcome their fears, they should be encouraged to try new things while adults are close by to provide reassurance. If children will experience something they are likely to fear, such as going to the hospital, they should be given as much information as possible about what to expect. Reducing uncertainty often reduces fear. Children who have fears should be encouraged to deal with these fears gradually (Kaplan, 1991). For example, a child who is afraid of the dark should gradually be encouraged to sleep in the dark rather than shutting the door and making the room completely dark all at once.
Common Childhood Fears
Age Fears Birth to 2 years
- Personal- sudden dropping sensation
- Auditory- loud noises
- Visual- masks and costumes
- Personal- mother's departure, bedtime, going to school or daycare
- Auditory- trains, trucks, thunder, flushing toilet, vacuum cleaner, wind
- Visual- dark colors, large objects, hats
- Spatial- moving objects to new locations, fear of going down the drain
- Animals- dogs and wild animals
- Personal- burglars, mom and dad going out at night, death
- Visual- older people, masks, monsters, darkness, animals, people in uniform
- Auditory- fire engines
- General- much less fearful, more visual than auditory fears
- Personal- more fears about "bad" people, getting lost, mom not coming home
- Spatial- falling
- Animal- fewer fears of animals
Extremely debilitating fears, called phobias, are intense irrational fears. Children rarely exhibit phobic behavior but those who do should be referred to a professional counselor (Westling & Koorland, 1991). Children should not be ridiculed, scolded, or punished for any type of fear. They should be encouraged to talk about them. Making children pretend they are not afraid, though, is likely to enhance fears (Kaplan, 1991).
© ______ 1997, Merrill, an imprint of Pearson Education Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The reproduction, duplication, or distribution of this material by any means including but not limited to email and blogs is strictly prohibited without the explicit permission of the publisher.
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