Fears are a normal part of childhood — and so is learning to manage them. Sometimes kids are afraid of imaginary things, like monsters. But often, fears are related to what’s going on in their lives.
Learning to cope with fear isn’t always easy. It’s tough for some kids who learn and think differently. They may have trouble processing information and keeping emotions in check. There’s a lot you can do to help your child manage fears. Here are some things to try.
Take the fear seriously.
Sometimes to help our kids, we say things like “There’s nothing to be scared of” or “Don’t worry about that.” This doesn’t make your child less afraid. Instead, it can send the message that you expect your child to “get over it.” Or that you don’t believe your child is terrified. Not taking fears seriously can make your child feel like it’s not okay to be afraid or that it’s not okay to talk to you about it.
Help find ways to talk about it.
Not all kids have the words to explain what they’re scared of. Ask specific questions to help your child explain it. For example, if your child clings to you and doesn’t want to be away from you, you can say, “What scares you about me not being here?” “Are you worried about me or worried about you?” “What do you imagine is going to happen?”
Once you have more information, describe it back and confirm you have it right. You could say, “It sounds like you’re anxious when you can’t be with me. You’re telling me you’re afraid something bad will happen to me when I’m away from you. I hear in your voice that you’re really scared. Did I get that right?”
Make a list.
Work with your child to list the things or situations that cause fear. Go over your child’s worst-case scenario. You can group similar fears. For example, kids who are afraid something terrible will happen to their parents when they’re apart may also be frightened to go to school or someone else’s home. They might be scared to be left with a babysitter. Those are all part of the more significant fear of being away from you.
Break the fear into smaller pieces.
Kids are more likely to believe in a plan they helped make. But tackling a fear all at once can be overwhelming. Instead, try smaller steps toward reaching the goal of conquering a fear. And have your child help you come up with those smaller steps.
Maybe your child is afraid to do schoolwork in one room while you work in a different room with the door closed. Agree that your child will do an hour of work away from you by the end of next week. Once you’ve set the goal, talk through the steps you’ll both take to reach it.
Read books that deal with fear.
Telling stories, acting out situations, or reading books about a terrifying situations can help kids overcome fears. The strategy is called “Bibliotherapy,” or healing with books. It’s helpful because kids often identify with the character who shares the same anxiety: “Oh good! Somebody else feels the same way!” Kids are more likely to open up about their worries to you. And putting the fear into words can help reduce the child’s concern.
A few favorites for younger kids: Wemberly Worried, by Kevin Henkes, Fears, Doubts, Blues and Pouts, by Norman Wright, Gary J. Olver, and Sharon Dahl; What To Do When You Worry Too Much, by Dawn Huebner; What To Do When You’re Scared and Worried, by James J. Christ; Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, There’s a Nightmare in My Closet by Mercer Mayer; and Go Away, Big Green Monster! by Ed Emberley. A trauma-informed strategy for older children is to “put the fear into context.
Cheer your child on.
Change takes time and doesn’t happen all at once. When your child faces a fear, let your child know how proud you are. Give encouragement, be patient, and praise your child’s efforts and successes. By sending the message that progress matters, you’re helping your child build a growth mindset and believe in the power of the word yet.
Say fear-reducing self-statements
Teach your child to face the fear by helping her learn to say a positive phrase. It’s best to help your child choose only one phrase and help her practice saying the same one several times a day until she can speak to herself when feeling anxious. Your voice will become your child’s inner voice if you calmly and repeatedly say the statement. A few fear-reducers include: “I can do this.” “I can handle this.” “I will be okay.” “It’s not a big deal.”
Practice relaxation strategies
If the fear makes your child tense, learning relaxation strategies could help regain self-control. Practice the one tip repeatedly until it becomes almost “automatic.” You might need to put a picture reminder on the fridge or next to your child’s bed. The trick is for your child to use that strategy the moment the worry comes before it builds.
While all parents dream that their children will have carefree days, the truth is our world is erratic. Scary things do happen. Parents can’t protect their kids from uncertain events, and they can’t try to “talk them out of their worry.” Fear is fundamental to the child. If unrealistic fear and anxiety aren’t tempered, they can affect even young children’s learning and development. What does help is giving “tools” to empower the child so he can manage his fears and worries.
Parents can help their children learn ways to manage their fears and reduce their anxieties. And they can teach our kids coping strategies to help them develop agency. Children with a “We’ve got this” view of life are more likely to thrive. They will use those coping strategies to help them deal with whatever troubling event they encounter and boost their resilience for life.