Understanding and Coping with a Challenging Emotion from our Children’s Perspective
By Noha Abu-Sitta
Fear is a basic emotion that is meant to protect us from danger. It is a natural part of childhood that helps children gain awareness of the world around them. All kids go through various phases where they are afraid of certain things, people or places. So when does fear start and how does it develop?
Babies have an abrupt gasping reaction when they hear loud noises or while they are sleeping on the bed. All babies are born with two basic fears: falling and loud noises.
At around 10 months old, another kind of fear pops up: separation anxiety, where little ones fear the loss of people, things and places that they are familiar with. This phase can be very tough for the parent as babies start crying every time the parent leaves their eyesight. Strong bonding with your child, avoiding surprises such as sneaking out without telling your child that you are going out for a while, playing games like peek-a-boo, constructing a predictable daily routine: all help.
The older they grow, the more imaginative they become, the more complicated their fears are such as: fear of certain creatures, costumes, darkness, anything they lack control over, stage fright, fear of change, rejection, failure and fear of death.
So many times we hear worried parents complaining about their children having developed certain kinds of fear that they have never suffered from before. Understanding the development of fear is thus important because it explains that what your child is going through is quite normal.
It is also as important that parents realize that there are things that they can do that can either promote or prevent their child’s normal fear developing into an abnormal phobia or an anxiety disorder.
So what should parents do and never do when faced with their child’s fears?
There are 3 key factors to dealing with your child’s fear: Respect it, discuss it and empower your child to properly deal with it.
Babies and Toddlers: Easing pain of fear is usually done through:
- Physical touch: patting or hugging the child.
2.Talking calmly and singing to your child.
- Distracting their attention to something else.
- Explain to your child that fear is a normal emotion. Tell them it is okay to be scared of things sometimes, we all do.
2.Problem-solvetogether: Acknowledge your child’s fears, which may sound irrational and silly to your brain, but it isn’t to his imaginative mind. Telling your child that there are no monsters won’t wipe away his fears because his imagination will still create them. It is okay, however, to tell him that you don’t personally believe in them, but since he does, together, you will figure out a way to conquer them.
Use his imagination to his advantage by asking him to consider what would help him work through his fears? It could be simple things like checking the room every night before you go to bed, inventing a monster water bottle spray and leaving it on his bed, saying a few prayers together. >>
- Modeling brave behavior: You as a parent or caregiver are the source of security for your child. Learn how to break your fear too not just for his/her sake, but also for your own. Empower yourself, face your fears and you’ll start enjoying different things in life in addition to being a good example for your child to follow.
- Read stories together: There are so many children’s books out there that help them with explaining their feelings and give them tools to deal with their own fears.
- Acceptance: So many parents refuse to accept that each child has his own limitations and capabilities. They can’t be brave in absolutely every single situation whether it is swimming in the sea or going on a safari trip! Realistically, this is impossible. We all have our own fears.
- Celebrate every time your child faces their fear just like when you did the first time your child started walking.
- Break their challenge into small steps: Instead of forcing her into the water, encourage her to wet her toes and ankles first. Take it one step at a time and show her how you jump in and enjoy it yourself. You can also go with other mums and kids her age who love swimming so she sees everyone is enjoying it and feels more motivated to take a step and face her fear.
- Seek help if necessary: If your child’s anxiety is interfering in his or her life, then definitely consult a child therapist.
Try to avoid:
- We all want to protect our kids so sometimes we are tempted to avoid putting them into situations that would trigger their fear, which does nothing but maintain their phobias. The key is to help kids feel empowered, so they feel in control of their world and refuse to be controlled by their fears in the future instead.
- Our children read our emotions through our tone of voice and facial expressions. If your child sees fear and anxiety in your eyes, he/she will immediately mirror this feeling and feels even more scared.
- Many times a parent will say to their child “Stop acting silly, you’re not scared,” or “don’t be a coward”. This will only escalate the matter for it conveys the following messages to your child: “I disappointed my parents and myself and I shouldn’t feel this way,” or “My parents do not understand me”.
- This will lead to them feeling angry at themselves as well as at the parents.
- Lying to the parents and making up excuses next time when faced with those fears.
- Many children are controlled by their fears when they feel tired and weak. Calming bedtime routine should be established. Also watching movies or reading bedtime stories that involve villains or scary pictures/incidents before bedtime don’t help.
- Sometimes we, as parents, build up phobias in our kids by being overprotective in an irrational way by telling them things like: “If you eat this, you’ll get a booboo in your tummy”, “If you drink that, the doctor will give you an injection”. There is no doubt that we do all this out of love and with good intention yet all these threats could develop phobias and kill trust later on between kids and parents.
- Lying to your child won’t help either and will cause resentment, lack of trust and more fear. Avoid telling your child things like, “The vaccine injection won’t hurt at all”. Tell him/her the truth,”Yes it will hurt but only for less than a minute.” You can also tell him/her that this one-minute pain will help them overcome more pain if they get infected by this virus if not vaccinated.
Understanding your child’s fears and accepting them makes life much easier for both of you. The only way to control your fears is by empowering yourselves to face and conquer them. Also remember that fears don’t last forever and when dealt with properly, you gain a great sense of power, confidence and accomplishment.
Noha Abu Sitta is a certified Health Coach for children up to 12 years old, by the Dr. William Sears Wellness Center. She is also a certified Positive Discipline Parent Educator by Dr. Jane Nelson and Dr. Lynn Lott. Noha regularly conducts parenting, health and nutrition courses covering a variety of topics. She also makes regular appearances on TV programs to dispense her expert advice.