Written by: Caroline Meyer
Everyone feels afraid sometimes and for children this can be a lot more often than for adults as there are so many new and potentially scary things in their lives. Fear is designed to make us cautious and to react to danger and is a completely normal reaction. Little babies and kids can react with fear to new people, loud sounds and many other issues that adults may longer react to. Infants are particularly prone to stranger anxiety and as soon as they are able to recognize faces, a new face may be scary to them. This can result in clinginess, crying and other fear reactions.
For toddlers, separation anxiety can be a major fear. They do not yet understand that the parent will be back and they feel extreme fear of being apart from the parent. This can also be demonstrated as clinginess, crying and other fear reaction. This is often seen when the child is dropped at a day-care or the parents leave the child with a care giver and they go out. It can also happen at bedtime where the child does not want the parent to leave the room.
As they get a little older and the imagination starts to kick in, small children start fearing things that do not necessarily exist. This is the monster in the closet or under the bed stage. They are not yet able to completely differentiate between what is imaginary and what is real so the fear of “monsters” can be a very real fear and cannot always be reasoned away. They may also be afraid of loud noises such as storms, fireworks etc. and may also exhibit a fear of the dark.
After the age of 7, kids start to fear dangers that can happen as opposed to imaginary creatures. This may include fear of someone dying, fear of being hurt, fear of strangers, fear of someone being in their home that can harm them or others, fear of natural disasters and other very real occurrences. They may also feel fear of not being able to fit in with others, failing at school or anxiety for tests and other schoolwork. This can even include fears based on how they look or their social standing.
While most fears are common and many are outgrown, when a fear becomes irrational and persistent to the point on intense anxiety and panic, this is a phobia and may need treatment by a professional in order to address it. Much of the time the phobias can be avoided, but some can be debilitating if they include common situations or things that are encountered regularly such as the fear of spiders.
Phobias refer to extreme fear of certain things or of being in a particular situation. Some of the more commonly encountered phobias include blood, heights, injections, storms, clowns, the dark and spiders. These phobias can result in panic attacks which include light-headedness, breathlessness, a racing heartbeat, sweating, a tight chest and possibly a flight or fight reaction. Phobias can cause extreme distress and if the phobia is debilitating for the child, you should contact a professional for assistance. Around 70% of severe anxiety can be treated without the need for medication. This is done through cognitive behavioural therapy.
A fear or phobia is not a tantrum and should not be discounted. Instead, try and help your child understand why they are feeling the way they are and give them techniques to deal with their anxiety. If a fear reaction to something is a once-off, you don’t need to refer to worry about it. If it happens continuously or affects the quality of your child’s life, you need to take steps to help your child deal with the phobia. The Australian mental health services are a useful resource to assist you with getting help for a child suffering from phobias.
SOME TIPS TO HELP YOUR CHILD DEAL WITH THEIR FEARS:
For younger children, you can comfort them and reassure them that you are there to protect them. Accept that their fear is real and spend time just soothing and holding them so they can feel safe. If they are old enough to articulate their fear, let them tell you about it. Find out what is making them anxious. Talking about the fear is often a way to resolve it. Once you understand what is making them scared and can explain some of the negative feelings away you can also reduce the level of fear from it. For example explaining a storm and how the rain helps water the garden may help your child handle the sounds of thunder. Talk in a calm and soothing voice and help them explain how they feel. You can also let them try different things so that they are not automatically afraid of something new.
Don’t brush off their fears or condescend to them when talking about what is making them scared. Help them handle their fears with you instead of things leading to tantrums and tears. Teach them about the things that scare them such as dogs, spiders, snakes, birds and so forth. Let them know to be cautious without a debilitating fear. Avoid watching movies that contain scary animals or other creatures as this can reinforce their fears or start new ones.
Teach them how to cope with their fears with you there are backup and support. You are their security blanket that lets them venture out and come back to you when they need comfort. Let them say positive things such as “I am brave” when they are feeling anxious. Being allowed to confront their fears without being forced and with you fully supporting them will help them overcome their fears or be able to deal with them in a healthy way. You can also teach them self-calming exercises and visualisations in order to help reduce their anxiety.