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Childhood Fears: Helping Children Cope (Part Two of a Two Part Series)
By Sandra Crosser, Ph.D.

When asked what they do when they are afraid, most children can generate strategies (Jones & Crosser, 1993). However, there is a qualitative difference in the nature of those strategies. Ideally, the child would independently initiate an action that would have a realistic chance of ending the feeling of fear.

Smith (1985) asked preschool children what they do when they are afraid. Then Smith asked the children's parents and teachers what those same children actually did when they are afraid. Children reported that they took aggressive action (39%), withdrew (19%), sought comfort from an adult (16%), or made non-verbal responses (14%). Adults disagreed, saying that the children did not engage in aggressive behaviors. Moms and teachers perceived that the children most often sought out adult comfort (33%). Dads, on the other hand, reported that the children most often used non-verbal coping strategies (35%). It may be that children respond to fear differently depending on the gender of the adult present at the time or, perhaps, that adults' perceptions are simply inaccurate.

When preschool teachers asked 272 children to name their fears and coping strategies, the children named 456 fears and generated more than 400 strategies to cope with those fears (Jones & Crosser, 1993). However, many of the named strategies involved aggressive bravado (e.g., kill it, stab it) and escapism (e.g., run, hide). It appears that children may need assistance in thinking of realistic strategies they could employ independently to reduce or eliminate their own fearful feelings. The preschool teacher is in a perfect position to help children learn how to cope with their fears.

The early childhood educator can empower children in six ways. These include 1) being aware of both normal developmental and individualized fears, 2) promoting autonomy, 3) preparing children in advance of potentially fear-inducing situations, 4) acting as a resource for comfort and security, 5) modeling effective strategies, and 6) incorporating information on coping strategies into curriculum.

 

1.       Be aware. In addition to learning about normal developmental fears, the educator can talk with parents and read about the cultural and ethnic attitudes and values that might impact the children in a given classroom. The teacher is then prepared in advance to anticipate activities and events that might evoke fears.

The original preschool entry application might include questions that would prepare the teacher to deal with specific individualized fears of the children in her care. For example, the application might ask the parent to identify the child's continuing fears and coping strategies.

Awareness can also come from observing and listening to the children as they work and play together, particularly in dramatic play. When a trusted teacher spends time listening and in casual conversation with a child, she may gain insight into specific fears of the children in her care.

 

  1. Promote autonomy. Offer authentic choices whenever possible. When we offer children choices and then follow through with the child's choice, we boost and enhance the child's sense of autonomy. However, it is important that the choices we offer are authentic ones. When we ask a child if she wants to do an art project or sing a song, we must be prepared for a "no." If there isn't a choice, don't offer the activity as if there were options. Here are some examples of authentic choices: Would you like peanut butter or bologna in your sandwich? Which color paper would you like? What song would you like to sing today? Do you want to go for a walk before snack or after snack? Would you like to hear a story before you take a nap or after you take a nap? Would you like to play with a ball or a hula hoop?

    Engage children in problem solving and point out successful initiatives. You might also ask children to brainstorm ideas for room arrangements, mealtime menus, dramatic play props, or nap time music. Try out the ideas and ask children what they think of the results.

 

3.       Prepare in advance. If you suspect that an upcoming event or visitor might evoke fear in some children, prepare them in advance. Answer questions and describe the routine that will be followed. Offer children the choice of interacting or simply observing. Describe the measures that will be taken to ensure safety. Be reassuring, factual, and calm.

Some common classroom events that frequently evoke fear include visits by animals, field trips away from the security of the center, disaster drills, balloons, uniformed visitors, loud noises, insect invaders, and substitute teachers or other strangers.

 

4.       Provide comfort and security. Consistently warm and accepting caregivers provide a secure base from which children can feel free to reach out and explore their world, secure in the knowledge that they can return to that base for a reassuring word, a hug, or a hand to hold. From that secure place, children can be encouraged, but never forced, to engage in any activity that the child finds threatening. Reassurance and respect for the child must dominate both words and actions.

 

5.       Model coping strategies. Just as children mimic the teacher's words and mannerisms when playing school, so they will take on the teacher's manner of dealing with the occasional spider or centipede. The caregiver needs to demonstrate outward calm and confidence even if she has inward pangs of panic. Children sense confidence just as they sense fear.

The caregiver might verbalize her coping strategies for the benefit of the children. For example, if the power goes out during a storm, the teacher might say, "I'm sure the lights will come back soon. In the meantime we have a flashlight. Sometimes when it is dark I like to pretend that I'm camping. Let's pretend together."


Other children can also act as positive models. The teacher might point out exactly what other children are doing when they pick up the guinea pig or step onto an escalator. Watching peers or even viewing videos of other children coping with fear-inducing stimuli has shown to decrease anxiety (Melamed, et al, 1978).

Another successful coping technique that can be modeled is self-talk (Sheslow, et al, 1982). Children simply practice saying specific reassuring or encouraging phrases to themselves when they are afraid. Adults can model self-talk and teach the tactic to children.

 

6.       Incorporate coping strategies into curriculum. Many early childhood programs are based on thematic units. Why not select units that will help children explore their fears? Integrated units might be developed around such themes as monsters, things that go bump in the night, insects, superheroes, real and pretend, shadows, bones and skeletons, masks, sea animals, dogs, or the weather. Finding out the facts helps to dispel fear!

The dramatic play area is a natural for working through fears. Dramatic play does not always need to be a housekeeping center. By varying the props, a teacher can create an inviting play area where children feel free to play out their fears in a nonthreatening setting. For example, try improvising a scuba diving dramatic play area where fears of water, sharks, and other creatures will surely surface. Start with an empty backyard toddler pool and add diving paraphernalia such as goggles and flippers, toy fish and other underwater creatures, aquarium nets, factual picture books, shells, wrapping paper cores for snorkels, and an undersea video. If it is situated near the block area, children will extend the dramatic play area with ideas of their own. On another day add packing peanut "water" and swim suits for dress up!

Pretend with the children. Pretend to go on a bear hunt, create a zoo with "wild" stuffed animals, or go to the dentist or hospital. Pretend to climb a high mountain or dance in the moonlight.

Select children's literature that reflects fears of the children in your center. Discuss how the characters cope with their fears and brainstorm additional strategies.

Be sure to include picture books that deal with characters who look different from the children in the class. People with physical handicaps which require the use of specialized equipment may elicit feelings of anxiety simply because they are perceived as different. Sets of block play characters with physically challenging conditions are available through educational supply houses and create a wonderful opportunity for children to play out related fears.

Teachers may also find puppets useful in explorations of common early childhood fears. During a circle time introduce a puppet who has a specific fear and invite the children to help the puppet think of ways he can overcome or cope with his fear. Then make the puppet available to children during their free choice times.


By incorporating fear-related content into the curriculum, teachers help children make sense of the world. When we know the facts, we are better able to predict and exert control over events in our lives. That sense of control tends to reduce fear. Therefore, the early childhood teacher needs to be aware of hands-on experiences that will help children learn the facts and develop a sense of control. Simple displays with items for children to examine and try out might include an empty beehive or wasps' nest, hats and uniforms for dress up, a clear plastic jar of crickets or lightning bugs, a hearing aid, animal skeletons, a preserved spider's web, masks, a place set up for making shadows on the wall, a display of animal and human teeth, a worm farm in a box, a stethoscope, firefighter's boots, law officer's badge, crutches, eyeglass frames, and canes.

Conclusion
It is normal for young children to exhibit both generalized and specific fears. But because of their cognitive and social-emotional developmental levels, children may find it difficult to develop effective strategies to cope with their phantoms in a world full of events they cannot always predict or control. However, you can be a source of help in talking about and playing out fears in a safe environment. If you listen to the children in your care, you will be prepared to provide the support and activities that will enable them to deal with the scary things in their lives.

Sandra Crosser, Ph.D., is associate professor at Ohio Northern University, Ada, Ohio.

References
Jones, J. & Crosser, S. (1993). Fears and coping strategies of preschool children. Unpublished presentation at Association for Childhood Education International meeting, Phoenix, Arizona.

Melamed, B.; Yurcheson, R.; Fleece, E.L.; Hutchewn, S.; & Hawes, R. (1978). Effects of film modeling on the reduction of anxiety-related behaviors in individuals varying in level of previous experience in the stress situation. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 46, 1357-1367.

Sheslow, D.V.; Bondy, A.S.; Nelson, R.O. (1982).A comparison of graduated exposure, verbal coping skills, and their combination in the treatment of children's fear of the dark. Child and Family Behavior Therapy, 4, 33-45.

Smith, D.J. (1985). Preschool children's fears: relationships among parent's and teacher's perceptions and children's self-reports.Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Tennessee, Knoxville.