Fearful children

Most of our children will go through a stage of fear over real or imagined things at some time or another. How can we best help them through it?

Children are inexperienced in dealing with the world and have very little control over their environment and circumstances. In light of this, it is little wonder they can at times feel vulnerable and fearful. A parent’s role is to protect and guide their children through their fears with a supportive, sympathetic, positive approach and open communication. This requires patience and gentleness.

Some fear is founded in reality and serves a very real purpose (e.g. a fear of heights). Other fears are fictitious, but assume an actual existence. It is our job as parents to assist our children to differentiate between the two. Fears most typical in childhood include fear of strangers, heights, darkness, animals, blood, insects and being left alone.

There is a physiological component to feelings of fear and anxiety. This can encompass clinginess, impulsiveness, nervous twitches, sleep disturbances, perspiring hands, accelerated heartrate and breathing, nausea, headaches and stomach aches. There is however also a positive aspect to the emotion of fear, in that it serves to heighten alertness and results in people being more focused and behaving in a safe manner.

Maturity level and emotional sensitivity can make a child susceptible to certain fears, or the catalyst may be from exposure to an unpleasant experience, such as receiving a dog bite. Inconsistent discipline by parents can also make a child fearful about making mistakes or being rejected. Therefore, parents need to establish rules and enforce consequences as a united unit and remember that children make mistakes and require guidance that does not involve embarrassment, ridicule, pain or punishment. Children who are over-protected or over-cautioned are also susceptible to developing debilitating fears and have associated confidence, risk taking and independence issues. Sometimes, but very rarely, fear is a bid for attention.

Perceptions about death often create anxiety and fear for children. Preschoolers view death merely as a form of separation and a type of sleeping, but at around the 5-year mark, their understanding becomes more personal and they begin to sense their own vulnerability, often beginning to ask, “Will I die?” This is best handled by being honest and direct, and by reassuring them that it is not something to be overly concerned about. It is here that parents’ moral or religious beliefs become fundamental. It is imperative that parents do not generalise (for example, only old people die) or use euphemisms (for example, granddad was laid to rest) as this confuses children, which then creates fear. Instead, parents need to allow the child to express their feelings, encourage questions and relay their own feelings, using language children will understand. Pets are often a child’s first experience of death and this can act as a timely opportunity to opening this line of communication.

Reassuringly, most childhood fears are outgrown and all fears can be overcome when faced directly.

what to do to help them with the fear

Respect your child’s right to feel fear and remember that your child will outgrow most fears.

Provide your child the time to work through their fear, and appreciate that your child’s personality will have a bearing on their fears.

Familiarise yourself with the assortment of fears children commonly experience at different ages. If your child’s fear is an isolated event or is typical for their age, consider it as a normal part of their development and not cause for concern. Instead, look for patterns to their behaviour, and if you feel that the fear is disproportionate to its cause, or is persistent and pervasive, then consider seeking intervention.

Reflect on the symptoms of your child’s fear (for instance, crying, nightmares, withdrawal from people or activities) and the impact these are having on their personal, social and academic functioning. Can you adjust anything to alleviate these symptoms?

Encourage your child to ask questions about the things they fear and respond with a positive spin on the issue in language that is at their level. Employ the use of drawings and play, stating: “Tell me about …” Such conversations help to clarify many misconceptions. The use of props such as puppets or dolls can be instrumental in assisting children who have difficulty verbalising or responding to direct questions. With this role-playing, you are giving your child a safe opportunity to discuss and devise a plan on how to make things better. Similarly, offering outlets for expression, such as writing or drawing, is a proven coping mechanism. This technique is particularly useful for nightmares as the child can create a new ending to the scene, which gives them an impression of power and control.

Formulate and rehearse a plan with your child to deal with the issue and, if necessary, gather “tools” to help them gain a sense of control and a feeling of safety over the situation. For instance, a whistle to call mum in the event of finding a monster in the closet or a stick which repels dogs when out walking.

when to seek help

Professionals make a distinction between fluid and fixed fears and phobias. A fluid fear is classified as transitional in that it remains for a limited period of time and then fades away. A fixed fear is typified as one that remains past what is age appropriate or intensifies. A phobia is characterised by a fear that is excessive, intense and persistent. Generally, unless any fear hinders a child’s ability to function in everyday life, a professional referral is unnecessary and it is most likely to resolve itself in due course.

fear in ages and stages

In infants, it is natural to experience separation anxiety especially at approximately 8, 13, 18 and 24-months of age. It is a major step in an infant’s intellectual development to become secure in the fact that eventually their parent will return. Other innate infant fears include sudden motions, loud or abrupt noises and unexpected approaches. As infants learn to interpret the environment and develop trust, they generally outgrow these fears. Stranger anxiety is the child’s way of demonstrating that they are more attached and feel safer with significant people. Around 8- to 10-months of age, infants begin to remember faces and so start to find infrequent visitors less threatening.

Within the 2- to 4-year-old age range, children conventionally fear the dark, baths, thunder and lightning, toilet training, loud
noises, doctors, separation, strangers and people or animals with an unusual appearance.

Between the ages of 4 and 6, children’s fears tend to be about things that are not based in reality, such as monsters, but can also incorporate loss of a parent and loss of control.

Within the 7- to 12-year age range, fears tend to become more concrete as the child’s intellectual capacity matures, assisting them to distinguish between what is real and what is not. Here fears centre more on reality-based circumstances that threaten bodily harm such as natural disasters, falling, loss of parents
and death.

By adolescence, fears tend to be concerned primarily with issues of social acceptance and academic achievement.

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