Eight month old Andrew cries at the sight of any stranger; fourteen month old Tiffany screams when a dog approaches; three-year-old David awakens with frightening dinosaur nightmares; four-year-old Emily wets her bed after seeing a clown; four-year-old Tyrone imitates the violence he sees on TV. These and many more are typical signs of childhood fears.
For young children, the world is a brand new, strange and unpredictable place. Sights that you and I take for granted and barely notice can seem so frightening to a child that they bring on hysteria. Imagine being transported to another planet. How would you react to alien creatures and startling sounds? Research with young infants has shown that even they can sense when something is weird or bizarre. What might make us feel a bit uneasy can be terrifying to children. Even their dreams seem so real that a nightmare can cause lasting fears.
How do we as parents react to our children’s fears? There seem to be two prevalent parenting strategies: parents either discount, explaining that there’s really nothing to fear, or they distract, trying to take the child’s mind off of the fear. Each of these methods sends a negative message to the child. The child hears that he is either silly and irrational, or that fear is too powerful for us to face. Either way, the fear is left unexpressed and unprocessed, likely to return to various forms.
The world can be dangerous, but children’s fears are frequently based on faulty interpretation, rather than actual danger. They often struggle with their fears in make-believe play and in art, depicting heroes, weapons, and violence. We adults, who have "realistic" fears, may not recognize these behaviors as expressions of fear. Whatever else these symbols represent, there is one pervasive childhood fear; a child’s worst fear is that he will lose his parents and be left alone, weak and unprotected.
As with everything else, we are our children’s role models. They watch how we cope with fear, and learn more from actions than words. How do you handle your own fears? Do you swallow them until they become unbearable and make you ill? Do you cover them and pretend they don’t exist? Do you resort to alcohol or drugs? Do you explode and take them out on your loved ones through verbal or physical abuse? Is this the way you want your child to handle his own fears?
We must help ourselves before we can help our children. The first step, whether for ourselves or our children, is to identify our fears. Don’t burden your child with all your inner anxieties, but share with her that you, like everyone, do have fears. Talk about the fears you had when you were a child. Then show her that fear is something you can face together, with courage and determination. Once faced, fear loses most of its power over us. This empowers your child better than discounting or distracting.
There are several ways to help your child face his fears. Have him draw a nightmare (even if it’s just scribbling), then write it down for him. You can even tell a story about it together. When your child plays make-believe, listen for any fears that may be hidden in his play. Later, casually mention what you heard and give him the opportunity to talk about it. Here are some ways to talk to children about facing their fears:
The dinosaur in your dream sounds scary. Was it trying to steal you away from us? Let’s read about dinosaurs and find out what they do.
She’s probably someone’s nice grandma, but you can hold my hand and you’ll be safe.
I’m a little scared of spiders, too. Let’s look for a spider and watch it spin a web.
When I was a kid, I was also scared of monsters. Let’s see if we find any in this room.
To minimize the number of fear-producing influences in your child’s life, remember the power of TV. Stick with channels that provide high quality, nonviolent children’s programs.
Eleanor Reynolds is the editor of The Best of the Problem-Solver: Articles for Parents and Teachers and the author of Guiding Young Children: A Problem-Solving Approach. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.